KNOXVILLE — Off to its first 0-3 SEC start in 15 seasons, the Tennessee men's basketball team needed a comprehensive effort to stop the bleeding.
The Volunteers found it rather easy to apply the band-aid against undermanned Mississippi State.
Freshman Derek Reese hit a trio of 3-pointers during a decisive 13-2 second-half run, and the bounce-back performances of the struggling Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden paced Tennessee's 72-57 win at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon.
"We definitely needed a win," Stokes said after scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. "Me and Trae, we definitely talked a lot through these last couple of games [because] both of us have been playing bad. We definitely needed a game like this.
"Both of us stayed confident throughout it all."
The Vols received contributions from across the roster in avoiding the program's first 0-4 league start since the 1993-94 season. Josh Richardson scored seven of their first eight points, leading scorer Jordan McRae totaled 12 points and Reese made the shots on the big run.
Freshman Armani Moore stuffed his stat line with four points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and one massive crowd-rousing swat of a Jalen Steele floater into the stands.
Golden's 10-point, nine-assist performance and Stokes' inside dominance -- Tennessee outscored the Bulldogs 42-16 in the paint -- might have been the most encouraging takeaways for the Vols.
"Those guys are talented players," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "It doesn't really matter who they're up against, but you've got to play well to get over that mental hump. They put the time in practice and they go through the procedures in practice to be successful, but you've got to get out on the floor and have one of those games.
"When you're talented players, you've got a target on your back, and you need games like that to get over that mental hump. The physical part is there, but that mental part will bog you down. You feel like you've got a 15-pound vest on your back."
His shoulder bruised, starting spot gone and confidence missing in action, Golden reached double-figure scoring for the first time since before Christmas and had a season high in assists.
"I needed that bad," the junior point guard said. "You've seen the past couple of weeks. It's been rough, but I'm just glad we got the win [because] that's the most important thing.
"It hasn't been hard. I'm not going to lose my confidence in myself, but this has been rough just not playing the way I've wanted to play and our team losing and obviously being a big key to that. I've been putting pressure on myself more to help our team get going and get us W's because I know I'm a big part of that. I just try and focus more on our team getting wins."
After Mississippi State (7-9, 2-2), which is in rebuilding mode under first-year coach Rick Ray, who coached with Martin for two seasons at Purdue, cut a 10-point deficit to four early in the second half, the Vols (9-7, 1-3) made their move.
Reese hit his big shots and Golden dished to McRae and Stokes for dunks. When the Bulldogs trimmed a 16-point deficit to single digits, Stokes made two free throws and dunked off a pass from Moore. Golden finished off the visitors with a three-point play.
Steele, a junior who starred at Knoxville's Fulton High School, showed his shooting ability with 13 first-half points in his homecoming, but Tennessee's separation came when he sat on the bench with bags of ice on his cramping legs.
"He's playing well for us," Ray said. "He's our best player coming back with experience and [has] the ability to shoot the basketball. We're short as it is."
The problems for Stokes and Golden have been a big reason for the Vols' recent skid, and Martin made it clear to his All-SEC duo they needed to pick up their play.
"He got on us about it," Stokes said. "We hear how bad we play all the time in practice, and that's not a bad thing at all. Playing bad and losing has to pain you, and I think he did a good job as a coach just letting us know how bad we played."
Martin wants to see Stokes and Golden build off Saturday.
"It has to be consistent," he said. "It has to be over time and that's who you are. It can't be one game, then you miss three, then one game, miss four."
After missing four, Tennessee is glad to get one.
"Now you can breathe a little bit, and let's move forward," he said. "I still don't think we played great basketball. I think we were good enough to win the game.
"I don't think we played at the level we're capable of playing. I think we've been at a 75-percent clip. You've got to be clicking on all cylinders."
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 ...