Tennessee's 56-53 defeat of Mississippi State was anything but glamorous Tuesday night inside Thompson-Boling Arena, but the No. 18 Volunteers were happy to avoid discussion of a three-game losing streak.
"It was a must win," Tennessee senior guard/forward Yves Pons said. "We had two straight losses, and we needed that win to put us back on track and to bring our confidence back."
The Vols won despite shooting 37.0% from the floor, 15.8% from the 3-point line and getting outrebounded 42-30. They began this coronavirus-altered season known for their dominant defensive play and regained their form Tuesday, holding the Bulldogs to just two baskets during the final 11 minutes.
Tennessee improved to 11-3 overall and 5-3 in Southeastern Conference play, while Mississippi State dropped to 9-8 and 4-5.
"I told the team tonight, 'I don't care how we do it. We've got to find a way to win this game,'" Vols coach Rick Barnes said. "I didn't care what the score was. I just wanted us to execute what we do. We had to find a way to get it done, and in games like this, players make plays."
Tennessee was nursing a 54-51 lead when Santiago Vescovi snagged an offensive rebound with 18 seconds left following a Jaden Springer missed layup. Vescovi was fouled with 12 seconds remaining and connected on both free throws to seal the game at 56-51.
An Iverson Molinar layup with two seconds to play accounted for the final tally.
Pons was the only Vols player to score in double figures, collecting 13 points before fouling out with 2:16 remaining. The three-point outcome marked Tennessee's first one-possession final score of the season.
"I think you need these," Barnes said. "We tell our guys that even when we win a game by nine or 10 points or lose a game by nine points — we tell them that a nine-point win is only three possessions. That's how fine a line it is and how quick it can go."
Springer, who returned to action after missing recent losses to Florida and Missouri with an ankle injury, hit a jumper at the 13:04 mark of the first half to put the Vols up 15-4, but the Bulldogs climbed their way back and pulled into a 20-20 deadlock on an Abdul Ado putback with 5:17 remaining before halftime. A Vescovi 3-pointer helped Tennessee close the half on a 6-3 run for a 26-23 advantage, but the offensive numbers were quite heinous.
Through the first 20 minutes, the two teams combined on 17-of-53 shooting from the floor (32.1%) and 2-of 19-from 3-point range (10.5%).
Mississippi State opened the second half with a Molinar 3-pointer and a pair of D.J. Stewart free throws to grab its first lead of the evening at 28-26, and the Bulldogs would stake their largest lead at 37-32 on two Deivon Smith free throws. Molinar led the Bulldogs with 16 points, while Stewart added 13.
Tennessee regained the lead for good at 46-44 on a John Fulkerson layup with 5:52 remaining.
Odds and ends
Tennessee redshirt junior guard Victor Bailey played a season-low 15 minutes. Mississippi State has yet to have a game this season affected by a COVID-related postponement. The only letterman in Tennessee basketball history from the state of Mississippi was Torrey Harris, the 6-foot-10 center from Sardis who played from 1995-99.
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