Tennessee and Mississippi State met on the Bridgestone Arena floor for the second round of the SEC Tournament — the first of the tournament for the Vols — in Nashville, Tenn., but it wasn't much of a game as the Vols outplayed Mississippi State, 69-53.
"I thought we did a good job out of the gate making plays," Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said.
The Bulldogs (11-22) took a very early 4-0 lead, but it was all Vols for the remaining 38 minutes.
On the strength of 10 Jordan McRae first-half points and a bevy of buckets from others on the UT roster, the Volunteers (20-11) were able to build their lead to as many as 19 in the opening stanza.
"It was good being able to get out in transition, which is what we like to do, and just force turnovers and get in transition to make plays," Trae Golden said.
Tennessee would finish the half leading by 16 over MSU, but the Bulldogs still had bite left. Mississippi State — who shot an abysmal 25.9 percent in the first half — came out firing in the second, draining six of its first 10 shots, and the Bulldogs were far from finished.
"I'm just proud of the way our guys came out after a poor first half and kept on battling till the end," Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray said.
With Tennessee able to keep Mississippi State comfortably away by 13 points for the majority of the second half, MSU used a 9-1 run to climb back within nine points of the Vols with 4:43 remaining.
But just as quickly as the Bulldogs struck, the Volunteers retaliated.
A McRae layup and a Jarnell Stokes putback on a missed free throw pushed Tennessee's lead back over 10 where it would stay.
"We just have to develop that killer instinct that when we're up by 15 (we have) to get it up to 25," Stokes said. "I thought we went out and competed but didn't defend at a high level (in the second half)."
"I thought we were passive in some areas, but we were able to win and that's the most important thing," Martin said.
McRae paced the Vols with 17, with three other teammates joining him in double figures — Golden (15), Jarnell Stokes (10) and Quinton Chievous, who had a career-high 10 points.
"Trae was able to get out and make plays, facilitating the ball to our shooters, and Jarnell was able to get position on they guys in the pain," Martin said.
The win gives Tennessee 20 for the season and sets up a Friday afternoon showdown with No. 4 seed Alabama. Both teams are thought to be on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, and a win Friday could be the final statement either team could need to solidify their résumé. But Golden doesn't want to think of it that way.
"We're here in the SEC Tournament and our goal is to win the tournament," he said. "If we take care of business it will take care of itself."
Friday's game is set for a 3:30 p.m. EST tipoff and will air on ESPNU.