KNOXVILLE - Minutes after his first big SEC home win, Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin spoke of the importance of protecting the home floor in conference play.
"The great ones find ways to win on the road," the Volunteers coach said last Saturday after UT beat Florida. "It might be an ugly performance, but you've got to find a way to win."
The Vols learned that the hard way on Thursday night. UT missed a handful of opportunities at an upset (and a 2-0 league start) with a 62-58 loss at 20th-ranked Mississippi State. The Times Free Press was not in Starkville, but here are some thoughts and analysis from UT's road trip.
GOLDEN UNTIL THE END
Tennessee would not have been in this game without point guard Trae Golden, but another late-game moment certainly had the sophomore thinking on the trip back home. Golden finished with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting with four 3-pointers, four rebounds and four assists. But much like the end of UT's loss in December to Pittsburgh, a play at the end looms in perhaps a larger light.
On the Vols' previous possession, Golden hit Renaldo Woolridge on a high pick-and-pop for a big 3-pointer that made it 60-58 State with 44 seconds left. After Skylar McBee's steal, Martin called a timeout and appeared to draw up a similar play. Before Golden could reach Woolridge's screen, though, State guard Dee Bost appeared to get a piece of Golden's crossover, chased down the loose ball and stuffed in the game-sealing dunk.
"I got the ball, I was sizing it up, about to attack and make the play and I slipped," Golden said after the game, according to UT. "My left foot slipped from under me, lost the ball and (we) lost the game."
UT had a chance to tie Pitt more than a month ago, but Golden was tied up.
Given the opportunities on which the Vols to cash in throughout the game, the turnover at the end seemed fitting. UT missed a handful of shots around the rim, some of which were blocked by the Bulldogs' big front line.
Most notably, though, Golden's pass intended for Cameron Tatum was errant on a three-on-one fastbreak with the Vols down four. Golden failed on another fastbreak where he was one-on-one and was blocked from behind after he hung in the air too long.
That said, UT deserves credit for doing what Martin wanted them to do: grind out games on the road. Another bad stretch -- this one a 15-5 State run over the last six minutes of the first half -- doomed the Vols, but they chipped away and had a chance to tie or win at the end.
ON THE BOX SCORE
THE GOOD: In his second game off the bench, center Kenny Hall had a dozen points. He had 13 against Florida. The junior had a thunderous one-handed dunk shortly after he missed on one where it appeared he might have been fouled. Jeronne Maymon was efficient (6-of-9 shooting for 13 points) and a focal point as the Vols tried to feed him in the post. But he played just 18 foul-plagued minutes.
THE BAD: Also in his second game off the bench, Jordan McRae had just five points. He made just 2 of 6 shots.
THE UGLY: Tough night for Tatum, who missed all seven of his shots and failed to score. Freshman Josh Richardson, who played backup point guard in place of Wes Washpun in addition to his starting spot at the two-guard, also didn't score.
The Bulldogs blocked 10 shots, which in a close game such as this, is an important number. Arnett Moultrie had four of them, but the league's leading rebounder finished with just four boards. He and Bost had 13 points apiece. State's Renardo Sidney was effective with 13 points and seven boards.
The Vols did a solid job against Bost because he only made three of his 11 shots and turned the ball over six times. But he impacted the game in other ways. He made six of his eight free throws and had five assists and four steals.
The Vols can't sulk for too long with second-ranked Kentucky coming to Knoxville on Saturday for a noon tip. The Wildcats were in a fight with Auburn on Wednesday night before pulling away late for a road win.
It's the vaunted Thursday-Saturday swing that some SEC coaches don't like very much. Of the six teams that played Thursday night road games last season and played on Saturday, all but two won the second game of that swing. Vanderbilt lost at home to Arkansas after winning at Mississippi State and Tennessee lost to Alabama after winning at Auburn.
From UT's standpoint, the Wildcats' talented bunch is more daunting than the quick turnaround.
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