An easy 20 minutes turned into a nervy 40-minute trip to Starkville for the University of Tennessee's basketball team.
Fortunately for the Volunteers, they had Jordan McRae.
Tennessee's top scorer poured in 29 points and chipped in 10 rebounds and four assists as the Vols fended off a scrappy second-half effort from Mississippi State in a 75-68 win at Humphrey Coliseum on Wednesday night.
"I just knew what we have to do right now," McRae told the Vol Network radio broadcast following his second career double-double. "We're definitely trying to win these last four, so I think everything in the locker room was trying to do things they don't normally do to get these wins."
The Vols (17-11, 8-7 SEC), part of a seven-way tie at .500 in the SEC entering the week, led by as many as 14 points in the first half and took a 35-24 lead into the break, but the Bulldogs got back into the game early in the second half with an 11-3 run.
Yet Tennessee seemed to have an answer each time Mississippi State (13-15, 3-12), which lost its 10th consecutive game and hasn't won in more than a month, pulled to within four points on a couple of occasions.
"I thought we did enough good things to win the game," third-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "We played well in spurts, but they're a team that battles. In our scouting report about these guys, they will not give up regardless of score.
"They'll keep attacking, they'll keep playing aggressively and in the second half they came out, put their heads down and did a great job of getting to the rim. We just made enough plays to win the game."
Most of the time, it was McRae making those plays.
He made a reverse layup and a 3 from the top of the key the first two times Mississippi State pulled to within four and later threw down back-to-back slams -- a driving two-hander in traffic and a one-handed tomahawk in transition. The two highlight-reel plays pushed Tennessee's lead back to double digits, but the Vols couldn't create much space due to their lackluster defense.
The guard-heavy Bulldogs shot 50 percent (15-of-30) in the second half, and of their 44 second-half points, 22 came in the paint and 12 more came at the free-throw line.
"This team, their record might not show it, but they play hard throughout the whole game," McRae said. "We expected that. I think we did a good job of not letting them get up in the second half."
When Fred Thomas scored to cut Tennessee's lead to 67-63 with 2:14 remaining, the Vols, 0-5 this season in games decided by less than five points, did enough to put the game away.
Maymon rebounded McRae's miss of a 3 -- one of Tennessee's 17 offensive rebounds in the game -- and McRae was fouled on a drive and hit both free throws.
"I thought he stepped up and really put us on his back when we needed to get some baskets," Martin said of McRae.
Antonio Barton, reinserted into the starting lineup at point guard in place of freshman Darius Thompson, hit two free throws to push the Vols' lead to 71-63 with 1:02 left.
Against the undersized Bulldogs, Tennessee big men Jarnell Stokes (14 points and nine rebounds) and Jeronne Maymon (10 and 11) each had solid nights, with Maymon, who missed all of last season coming off multiple knee surgeries, picking up his second straight double-double.
"Jeronne got some great rebounds late in the game to keep the balls alive to reset the offense," Martin said.
In the first half, the Vols shot 45 percent and held big advantages in paint points (22-10) and rebounding (22-12), McRae and Stokes (22 points combined) nearly outscored Mississippi State by themselves and, if not for nine turnovers, Tennessee may have been out of sight.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...