KNOXVILLE — Among the six swished 3-pointers and the one-handed tomahawk dunk that might make this morning's "SportsCenter" on ESPN, Jordan McRae picked perhaps the least flashiest moment as his favorite from a career scoring night.
The Tennessee guard had plenty of options, but he needed little time to pick out one play.
"The tip-in I made over Johnny O'Bryant," McRae said after he scored 34 points in the Volunteers' 82-72 Southeastern Conference victory against visiting LSU on Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I think that was a big play for us."
It was one of many for McRae, a 6-foot-6 junior, in the Vols' fourth consecutive win. He had Tennessee's highest scoring output since Chris Lofton scored 35 points and made the memorable 3-pointer over Kevin Durant in a home win against Texas in December 2006.
The Vols (15-10, 7-6) led by as many as 13 in the second half, but LSU -- winner of five of six games and six of eight since an 0-4 SEC start -- kept coming behind its full-court press and 13 second-half second-chance points.
Every time the Tigers (15-9, 6-7) charged, though, there was McRae to thwart them.
"Just glancing up at the scoreboard and seeing them down seven," he said, "if we don't score they can come back and hit a 3-pointer and cut it to four. I was just putting it on myself to really try to score at the end of the game."
McRae twice hit treys with the Vols up six points. When Anthony Hickey answered McRae's tip-in of Kenny Hall's miss and LSU called timeout with 4:09 remaining, Tennessee's leading scorer struck again with one of his odd-but-effective driving baskets.
"I told him in the first half he was going to go for 30 tonight [with] the way he was shooting the ball," said Tennessee point guard Trae Golden, who continued his late-season revival with 20 points and eight assists. "I just kept feeding him. I just think it's all coming together at the right time, and it's good for us."
Led by McRae's perfect 6-of-6 night, Tennessee, which entered the game shooting 29.6 percent on 3s for the season after making all five triess in Saturday's rout of Kentucky, shot 10-of-14 from behind the arc. McRae did plenty of damage, too, from 2-point range, where he made seven of 12 shots. He again displayed his quietly impressive mid-range jumper and demonstrated his athletic ability with the high-flying dunk with 10:43 remaining in the game.
A month ago, when Golden and Jarnell Stokes, who double-doubled with 13 points and 11 rebounds in his big-time big-man matchup with O'Bryant (24 points and eight rebounds), were struggling mightily, Tennessee might not have been able to pull out a game like it did Tuesday.
Tennessee had lost all five of McRae's games of 20-plus points this season, but that was when the other two-thirds of the Vols' best players were mired in midseason slumps.
"It's a different team," coach Cuonzo Martin said. "This is the team I thought we'd be at the beginning of the season, but you go through things and guys have to learn and guys have to grow. I didn't think Trae and Jarnell would have been the guys they were earlier in the season, but they're playing the way they're built and advertised and that's why you're having the results."
"You've just got to go through it as a team, and you've got to learn from it. The thing I give these guys the most credit is not giving up when times got tough. You're losing tough games, you're losing emotional games, but to stay the course, that's the sign of a really good basketball team, when you get better late and you continue to make progress."
Where that progress ultimately takes the Vols remains to be seen with three road games and visits from SEC leader Florida and talented league newcomer Missouri left on the schedule.
Yet with its top three players in top form, Tennessee believes it can continue its late-season run.
"We're all jelling right now," McRae said. "Everybody's doing what we all have to do. We're just trying to grind our way to winning.
"We're just trying to be one of those teams that people don't really like to play."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...