published Sunday, March 9th, 2014

'Out in style': Tennessee hammers Mizzou in regular-season finale

Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes (5) muscles a rebound away from Missouri guard Jabari Brown (32) during the first half at the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville on Saturday.
Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes (5) muscles a rebound away from Missouri guard Jabari Brown (32) during the first half at the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville on Saturday.
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Jordan McRae landed after one of the easiest reverse dunks he'll ever have, turned toward Tennessee's bench and flashed a smile at his teammates.

That play went just like he planned.

The entire afternoon went just like he'd hoped, too.

McRae scored only 11 points, but that was of little concern to Tennessee's senior guard and overall leading scorer after a 72-45 pasting of fellow NCAA tournament bubble team Missouri in front of a season-high crowd of 18,519 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon.

"I just told Darius [Thompson] the play before, 'If you get the rebound, I'm out of there,'" McRae said of the play that resulted in what he hopes was his final basket at Thompson-Boling. "It just happened exactly how I just told him. I was planning to do something, but with [Missouri's Jabari Brown] running that fast behind me, that's all I could get done.

"Going out on a dunk, you know, that's the way you've got to go out."

Tennessee (20-11, 11-7 SEC) won its fourth straight game since a loss at Texas A&M, and the Vols have won their past three games against Vanderbilt, Auburn and Missouri by a combined 93 points.

The win wrapped up the fourth seed and a double-bye in this week's SEC tournament in Atlanta, and Tennessee will open play Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals against Arkansas, Auburn or South Carolina.

As for what Saturday's rout did for the Vols' NCAA tournament hopes, they're not conceding anything.

"I definitely feel like this game should definitely put us over the top," said Vols big man Jarnell Stokes, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds in his 18th double-double of the season.

McRae's thoughts: "We've got a game on Friday next week."

"I'm not on that committee. I don't know what they're thinking," said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin.

Asked later if thought Tennessee was an NCAA tournament-worthy team, Martin replied, "Yes, but you've got to keep going."

At the current rate, it's hard to see any of the 12 other SEC teams not named Florida slowing the Vols.

"I think we're at our peak right now," senior forward Jeronne Maymon said, "and I think if we can continue riding this wave, I think we'll be fine."

Antonio Barton, who has scored 51 points and hit 13 3-pointers in his last three games after scoring 16 and hitting four treys on Saturday, opened the game with a 3, and Tennessee never trailed for the fourth game in a row. The Vols opened the game on an 18-6 run, pushed the advantage to 24-9 and led 37-19 at halftime.

Missouri (21-10, 9-9) briefly trimmed its deficit to 14 points early in the second half, but the Vols went on a 10-0 run to push the lead to 49-25 and put the game away.

The Tigers shot 57 percent against Tennessee in a 75-70 February win in Columbia, Mo., but the Vols held coach Frank Haith's team to a season low in points in the rematch. It was the Tigers' lowest-scoring game since 1997. In their last three games, the Vols have allowed just 45.7 points per game.

"It's definitely the defense, collectively and individually," Maymon said. "The defense we're playing is tremendous. Coach Martin comes in at halftime for the last couple of games and says, 'We didn't play a good -- we played a great half.' We just want to keep feeding off that."

Josh Richardson led the way defensively by shutting down Brown, the SEC's leading scorer at 20.1 points per game entering the game. Richardson had held Auburn's Chris Denson's, the league's second-leading scorer, to three points on Wednesday. Brown scored eight points and shot 1-of-10, the only basket coming with 1:16 left.

"He's been defending at that level. He really has," Martin said of Richardson. "Again, he's one of those guys taking a more serious approach. A fun-loving guy, but when you're a defensive stopper, there's a tone, there's a presence you have to have, you have to set. The guy that you're going against, he needs to see that. I think Josh has done a great job of accepting that challenge."

Seniors McRae, Maymon, Barton and D'Montre Edwards were honored before the game and substituted out with 1:41 left.

"You just want to go out on a win, no matter how you've got to get it done," McRae said. "We would prefer to get it done how we did. That's the ideal way, and we did it."

Both McRae and Maymon were in the their first years with the program -- Maymon transferred in from Marquette in 2010 -- when Tennessee last made the NCAA tournament in 2011, and both stuck through the coaching transition from Bruce Pearl to Martin.

"I'm glad we could go out in style," Maymon said. "We went out there and we played a hell of a game. All the seniors, we played well, and it was just a good time. A great environment, the fans were loud, and it just felt right."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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