KNOXVILLE - The future of the Tennessee-Memphis basketball series remains uncertain.
There are no questions about the present, though.
The visitors from West Tennessee rode hot shooting to a 21-point lead, and Gerron Johnson's two 3-pointers doused the Volunteers' comeback hopes as the Tigers won 85-80 in front of an energized Thompson-Boling Arena crowd that included new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry.
"They came out and hit us in the mouth, and we didn't respond to it until 15 minutes left in the game," said Tennessee guard Josh Richardson, who scored a career-high 20 points. "We weren't getting in them [defensively] like we usually do. We were playing a bit timid.
"I don't know what really happened, but we can't come out like that. That's really upsetting. Film on that ain't going to look too pretty, and I'm going to leave it at that."
The talk all week focused on the future of the series. It once seemed dead with Memphis coach Josh Pastner's desire to discontinue it, but the week ends with discussions between the two sides ongoing and the resumption of it after next season seeming more likely than it did a few days ago.
Based on the first 25 minutes, Pastner may consider changing his tune.
"You can't dig yourself a hole because of lack of effort," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "You put yourself in a tough situation and you fight your way out of it. We did a poor job in the first half with our transition defense."
Memphis (10-3) shot 64 percent in the first half, with playmaking point guard Joe Jackson, swingman Adonis Thomas and high-flying guard D.J. Stephens combining for 29 points. The Tigers scored 22 in the paint and outscored the Vols 9-0 in transition. Tennessee made just eight of 29 shots, and Jarnell Stokes played just eight minutes and sat the half's final 9:50 after he was whistled for his second foul on a questionable charging call.
"They was doing whatever they wanted to do," said Vols center Kenny Hall, who scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. "That was just a letdown. We wasn't playing tough ball in the first half."
After closing out the first half on a 22-9 run, the Tigers extended the lead to 60-39 with 14 minutes remaining in the game, and Jordan McRae had seen enough.
"I said, 'Let's go, we don't have anything to lose,'" he recalled of his message to his teammates. "'We might as well play as hard we can.'"
The junior scored 12 quick points in the second half, and Tennessee (8-4) chipped away at the deficit. McRae's 26 points included four 3-pointers during an 18-9 run that trimmed the Memphis lead to 10 points. Richardson scored twice, and two baskets off offensive rebounds by Stokes made it 69-64 Memphis with five minutes remaining.
"Josh and Jordan kept us in [the game] scoring the basketball," Martin said. "I thought both those guys did a better job in the second half of attacking the rim and making plays. We did a good job outrebounding those guys."
Two Johnson daggers, both over McRae from nearly identical spots on the left wing in front of the Memphis bench, quelled the arena's growing buzz.
"After the game I told the team that was definitely my fault," McRae said, visibly bothered when discussing the sequence. "I know the loss isn't because of me, but we're down six and he hits two 3s back to back. It's a whole different ballgame if he doesn't hit those shots."
Shaq Goodwin's three-point play following Richardson's blown dunk pushed the Memphis lead back to 11, and Thomas, who finished with 18 points, answered a McRae drive. Chris Crawford's free throws pushed Tennessee's deficit back to six with 41 seconds on the clock.
"They made some big shots," Martin said. "They had guys step up and make big plays."
Jackson finished with 20 points, four rebounds and seven assists as Memphis became just the fifth road team to beat Tennessee in Knoxville in Martin's two seasons.
"If we would've have played like the first half," Hall said, "there wouldn't have been a need to make a comeback. We put up a good fight. [But] we lost that game in the first half."