KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee men's basketball team has been good enough to build double-digit leads in 15 games this season.
How the Volunteers have played with those cushions, however, has been troublesome.
Mississippi State rallied from a 19-point first-half deficit Saturday in Starkville to end Tennessee's four-game winning streak in what was the fourth time this season the Vols let a double-digit lead turn into a defeat.
Tennessee also led North Carolina by 15 and Arkansas and Ole Miss by 13 before losing.
"They were tougher down the stretch," Vols coach Rick Barnes said in his postgame news conference. "Any time you give up 21 (offensive) rebounds, what can you say? We turned the ball over in ways that we shouldn't, missed free throws, and that's a great formula to lose games. You've got to give (Mississippi State coach) Ben (Howland) and his team great credit.
"They got down, stayed in it and got the momentum going their way. I'm just disappointed in the way we responded with the lead and responded coming down the stretch. We just didn't do what we needed to do. You've got to give them all the credit for it."
Even in some of its wins, Tennessee struggled after taking what looked like a commanding lead.
The Vols led Appalachian State by 26 and Tennessee Tech by 22 before winning by nine and six. Texas A&M cut a 20-point deficit in half in the final four-plus minutes of Tennessee's win in College Station. Kansas State and Auburn sliced 19- and 22-point second-half deficits to nine and eight against the Vols in their two games prior to Saturday's collapse.
The four losses, though, are much tougher to stomach for a team with an NCAA tournament berth at stake.
Tennessee led for nearly 31 minutes in Chapel Hill before North Carolina swiped the win away in the final minutes. Arkansas trailed by 13 before scoring 11 straight points going into halftime. Ole Miss, which will visit the Vols on Wednesday, outscored Tennessee 41-17 in the final 15 minutes after falling behind by 13.
The Bulldogs erased an 18-point deficit early in the second half by outscoring the visitors 34-12 over a 14-minute span.
"When we have leads, we're going to play through Robert (Hubbs)," Barnes said. "He had a tough day Grant (Williams) hung around on the perimeter too much. We didn't play well enough to win for 40 minutes. It was easy going early, and your mind, you're thinking this game might be over.
"I don't know if that's what they think, but it's happened too many times. When they get back in the game and now you've got a game, I'm just not real pleased with the way we responded."
Barnes also was displeased with some calls that went against Tennessee in the second half. Even more than a flagrant foul on Admiral Schofield, the Vols' second-year coach openly complained about a goaltending call on Williams on a Lamar Peters basket with three minutes left that gave the Bulldogs a 59-55 lead.
"We just saw it. It wasn't a goaltend," Barnes said. "Instead of being a four-point game, it should have been a two-point game with us with the ball, and maybe we could have stopped the momentum. That was a big play from us, because we were struggling at that point in time. With the momentum going their way, you don't want something like that to happen."
Tennessee's offense dried up in the second half. The Vols had an 18-6 advantage in points in the paint in the first half, but Mississippi State won that category 22-14 after the break The Bulldogs' 31-17 second-half rebounding advantage was key.
As evidenced by comments from Barnes and Schofield before Friday's practice, the Vols were well aware of their inability to play a complete game, and 24 hours later those warts were exposed.
"It's a 40-minute game," Barnes said. "We've had leads before and we let it get away. We've been down and gotten back. We didn't make winning plays. You get outrebounded 55-45 — they win that battle, they win the battle in turnovers we normally have been pretty good (on free throws). We didn't deserve to win."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.