STARKVILLE, Miss. — When the horn sounded, the result was discouraging. How Tennessee got there, though, was anything but.
The Vols tiptoed up to the brink of another upset Thursday night in Humphrey Coliseum.
The surprising conquerors of 13th-ranked Florida five days ago had another surprise in store for 20th-ranked Mississippi State.
They trailed by as many as 12 points. They had one sneaker slipping off the tracks on the way to getting blown out.
Wasn't that, after all, pretty much how the script was expected to go?
And yet with 11 seconds on the clock, there the Vols were, trailing 60-58, with the ball in their hands.
That wasn't in the script.
As you know by now, it did not end well. Mississippi State won the ultimate possession and escaped 62-58.
Dee Bost, State's senior point guard, got the best of Trae Golden, Tennessee's point guard. A Golden turnover led to a Bost dunk and that was that.
A crowd of 8,148 and one stone-faced bulldog went home happy.
And Tennessee went home without a road win, that most prized of possessions in conference play. It was there for the taking but
the Vols couldn't quite get their fingers around it.
"We fought hard to the end,'' said center Kenny Hall. "Unfortunately, we didn't finish.''
Finishing is tough any time, especially so on the road. But it was to Tennessee's credit that it was in position to feel bad about not finishing.
"They kept their poise and fought hard,'' said Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury.
Poise had not been Tennessee's best friend in previous road outings, at Oakland, Charleston and Memphis.
The Vols, however, have put together 80 largely impressive minutes once SEC play began.
Defense was the key to handling Florida rather easily. It was a big key to fighting back in the second half against another superior opponent.
The Bulldogs shot 52 percent the first half, only 36 the second.
"We're getting better as a team,'' said coach Cuonzo Martin.
"The guys are playing the way we expect 'em to play as a program.''
Golden will replay the final seconds in his head for a long time to come and he won't enjoy it.
But without his poise in the first 39 minutes and 50 seconds, Tennessee wasn't in the game.
Kenny Hall and Jeronne Maymon stepped up in the paint against Mississippi State's imposing front line.
If only Maymon had been on the court more than 18 minutes. He played only six minutes the first half and then fouled out, his fourth foul coming 35 feet from the basket, his fifth 25 feet out.
The rest of the cast, frankly, provided insufficient offensive support.
But it did pitch in. As for how Tennessee arrived at the brink of a monumental upset, don't round up the usual suspects.
Leading 60-55 as the clock moved under a minute, the Bulldogs no doubt were fine leaving Renaldo Woolridge alone to launch a long 3-pointer.
Only he hit it. With 44 seconds left and within 60-58, all the Vols needed was a defensive stop.
They got it from Skylar McBee, of all people.
Bost, Woolridge defending after a switch, easily found a path down the lane. But when he kicked the ball back out toward a shooter, McBee was there for the steal.
With 11.3 on the clock, Martin called timeout to draw up the play to force overtime or even steal a win with a trey.
To no one's surprise, the ball came to Golden. But when he began to make his move on Bost, he slipped. Bost pounced on the easy steal and drove uncontested for the dunk.
A loss is ultimately a loss. Don't talk to Martin about moral victories. That's not in his game plan for rebuilding Tennessee in his image.
Still, after two outings the rest of the SEC should take note — and that includes Kentucky — that Tennessee is no pushover.
It's a team getting better.