Tennessee's basketball Volunteers were a Jeronne Maymon layup away from adding to a small lead midway through the second half on the road against a top-15 opponent.
Tekele Cotton then changed the game.
The 6-foot-2 Wichita State guard skied to block Maymon's attempt off the backboard, then gathered the rebound after another Tennessee miss, sprinted down the floor and converted a three-point play that swung the momentum of the 12th-ranked Shockers' eventual 70-61 win against the visiting Vols on Saturday afternoon at INTRUST Bank Arena.
"It was tough for us," Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said during a postgame interview on the Vol Network's radio broadcast of the game. "They just made some huge plays. They've got us a lot on the offensive glass, and I just think we've got to do a better job toward the end of the game."
In its biggest nonconference game of the season, Tennessee led 26-25 at halftime but faded down the stretch and missed out on what would have been a very quality win against a Wichita State team that's now 10-0 -- the best start in program history -- coming off a run to last season's Final Four.
In a tight game in which the largest lead was only five points until the game's final five minutes, the Vols (6-3) took a 44-41 lead with 9:45 remaining after two dunks by Jarnell Stokes, the second of which drew a foul and ended in a three-point play.
"I thought [when] we had them up three, we could go up five, seven, and it just didn't happen," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin told the Vol Network.
Cotton's game-changing sequence came on the Vols' next trip down the floor, but it was just the start of a strong second half from the junior from Georgia, who almost single-handedly finished off Tennessee.
After McRae, who led Tennessee with 26 points, hit a 3-pointer and sank two free throws to cut the Shockers' lead to 51-49 with 6:50 left, Cotton hit a 3 from near Wichita State's bench and made two foul shots after he was fouled grabbing a rebound to push the Shockers' lead to 56-49.
On Wichita State's next possession, Cotton found Chadrack Lufile with a bounce pass for a layup, and the Vols were unable to pull within less than seven points after the Shockers' 7-0 spurt.
Scoreless in the first half, Cotton finished with 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals, and he was 9-of-11 on free throws and hit two 3s.
"He played a good game on both ends of the floor," Martin said. "He got to the free-throw line quite a bit, but I thought he impacted the game on defense. He had a key block on Jeronne. I thought he had a key steal when Jordan was in transition. He took it on the other end and got one-and-ones out of the deal. He did a good job of playing on both ends."
Cleanthony Early scored 13 points, including a dagger 3-pointer that pushed the Wichita State lead to 63-51, and Darius Carter chipped in 11 points and 14 rebounds off the Shockers' bench.
McRae, who passed the 1,000-point plateau for his career in the game and threw down a highlight-reel tomahawk dunk in the second half, was the only Tennessee player in double figures, and he made eight of the Vols' 20 field goals.
"To be honest, right now I can't really even think about that," McRae said about his career milestone. "This game right here, it really meant a lot to us. That's all I can really get my mind around at this point."
Stokes struggled mightily in 22 foul-plagued minutes. His first basket came on a dunk midway through the second half, and he finished with just eight points and four rebounds, which snapped his four-game streak of double-doubles.
Tennessee shot 15-of-24 from the free-throw line and missed at least four layups, many coming in the first half.
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 ...