KNOXVILLE — With arguably its season on the line, Tennessee turned to one of the rarer sequences in basketball: the five-point possession.
It may be the only one the Volunteers get this season, and it couldn't have come at a more crucial point, with the threat of another potentially damaging home loss just around the corner.
Jordan McRae scored 24 of his 34 points in the second half and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:46 left as the Volunteers rallied from an eight-point second-half deficit to knock off Arkansas 81-74 on Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I think we responded well," McRae said after scoring Tennessee's final 13 points. "I think we took good shots. We didn't force up anything, and most importantly, we made the stops we needed to toward the end."
Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar was called for an intentional foul on Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon, and after Maymon hit both free throws to tie the game at 68, Antonio Barton threw a pass to an open McRae in front of the Vols' bench.
"It wasn't a designed play," McRae said. "We were about to run some offense, and I guess Jeronne and Jarnell [Stokes], they draw so much attention down there, they were in a zone and [the defender] was leaning toward Jeronne down there.
"I got room to shoot it."
Arkansas coach Anderson disagreed with the call on Haydar.
"McRae played well, but the MVP was the flagrant foul call," he said. "You get in two or three minutes and that's one that should play on. I thought it just changed the whole dynamic of how the game was going."
To that point, the game was nip-and-tuck between two teams needing a win to stand out in an otherwise bland SEC. There were 15 lead changes and 10 ties.
Tennessee (12-6, 3-2) led by as many as six late in the first half, but the Razorbacks were the aggressors out of the break.
The smaller Hogs were outrebounding the Vols and had a 17-2 advantage in second-chance points at one point, and a team that's won just three times away from Fayetteville in two-and-a-half seasons was brimming with confidence.
With 11 minutes left, Arkansas, which had won just three games outside of Fayetteville or Little Rock the past three seasons, led Tennessee 63-55 after an 11-0 run earlier in the second half.
"We just had to get stops," third-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "At some point, you've just got to man up and do your job and get stops. They were just driving the ball."
As the Vols strung together five consecutive stops, they went on an 8-0 run, capped by Josh Richardson's tying 3-pointer.
"I don't think there was panic," said Maymon, who had 17 points and nine rebounds and was 9-of-10 from the free-throw stripe. "Our huddles, we just kept talking about getting consecutive stops and working our offense. Arkansas is a really good team, they speed you up and make you do a lot of things you don't want to do.
"We were playing out of our comfort zone, but we made it happen tonight."
Arkansas, which was 7-of-13 on 3-pointers at one point, outscored Tennessee 30-26 in the paint and converted 15 Vols turnovers into 20 points, retook the lead before the game's biggest sequence.
"We knew Arkansas was a team that could win by 20 or they could lose by 20," McRae said. "They're definitely a tough team to even prepare for the way they run their offense."
McRae finished 9-of-18 from the field, 12-of-14 from the foul line and 4-of-8 on 3s and chipped in seven rebounds, two assists, two steals -- including one in the final minute when Arkansas had the ball down 76-72 -- and two blocks with just one turnover.
"It's one of those games where it's his kind of environment, where you kind of open up and just play," Martin said.
"I thought he got off to a slow start, rushing shots. I thought he was a little hesitant, off-balance, pressing a little bit, then he settled down. For him, it was more the Rocky Top [League], just let's play. The way they play, you have to be able to make individual plays, and he did a good job of getting to the rim, getting to the free-throw line and knocking his shots down."
It rescued the Vols from a third home loss, one that would have made a late-season climb into the NCAA tournament even steeper.
"You'll go through a lot of things in league play," Martin said. "Ups and downs, you'll see teams get beat [when] you didn't expect them to get beat, you'll see stuff happen. That's part of league play, but the key is be consistent, get a W and keep moving and learn from it.
"When you lose game, it takes a toll on you, physically and mentally, but when you win 'em, you can learn from it and still push forward."
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 ...