NASHVILLE — Tennessee took care of business in its postseason opener.
In a game they could not afford to lose in their chase of an NCAA tournament bid, the Volunteers gained control early and maintained a comfortable lead throughout a 69-53 win against Mississippi State on Thursday afternoon in the SEC tournament's second round at Bridgestone Arena.
Tennessee advances to the quarterfinal round, where it'll face Alabama (19-11) at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. It's the rubber match between the Vols and Crimson Tide, two bubble teams who won on their home courts in the two regular-season meetings.
After the Bulldogs, playing with only eight healthy players under first-year coach Rick Ray, scored the game's first four points, Tennessee (20-11) answered with a 12-0 run. The Vols later extended their lead to 19 points with a 14-2 run, including eight straight during one stretch. At halftime, Tennessee led 35-19.
Mississippi State's 11 first-half turnovers led to 13 Tennessee points, and the Bulldogs made just seven of the their 27 shots, while the Vols shot 48 percent and scored 22 points in the paint.
The Vols were sloppy defensively and offensively after halftime, but Mississippi State remained between 12 and 15 points down until Craig Sword's free throw pulled the Bulldogs to within nine points at 58-49 with 4:42 remaining in the game.
Jordan McRae scored his first points of the second half on a driving bank shot, and Jarnell Stokes rebounded his teammate's miss and scored to refill the advantage.
McRae finished with a team-leading 17 points, the last coming on an impressive 360-degree dunk after stealing the ball near midcourt. Trae Golden scored 15 points, and Stokes finished with 10 points and nine rebounds. Once mired outside of the rotation, freshman Quinton Chievous provided some energy in the first half and finished with a career-high 10 points and four rebounds.
Sword led Mississippi State, which finishes the season 10-22, with 19 points.
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 ...