UT-Ole Miss post-game Tennessee press conference
NEW ORLEANS — Cuonzo Martin said it himself Thursday when he was asked about the formula for success in a tournament atmosphere.
Looking to Friday night's SEC tournament date with Ole Miss — and to postseason play in general — Martin said you don't want to hang your hat on making 3-point shots in an unfamiliar gym.
Better to take your chances attacking the rim and getting to the free-throw line.
So much for that game plan.
Playing for its NCAA tournament life, Tennessee resorted to winging it with a 3-point prayer.
It was risky roll of the dice, and UT ultimately crapped out Friday night in a 77-72 overtime loss to Ole Miss.
To the strains of "Dixie" played by the Ole Miss band, the Vols were sent packing from the SEC tournament. Worse, they're out of the NCAA tournament as well.
Faced with a hard-nosed, long-reaching Ole Miss zone defense, Tennessee launched 34 3-point tries in the New Orleans
The 30th one was a beauty, a banked-in 3-pointer by Skylar McBee with 2.1 seconds on the clock to force overtime at 61-61.
But the Rebels scored on eight of their nine overtime possessions, and that was that.
"We knew they would play us zone," said Martin. "We did a good job of getting to the free-throw line. I don't know if we did a very good job of using dribble penetration."
The 34 treys ranks second on the season, topped only by 39 against Chattanooga. The Vols made 11, five of them from McBee.
Tennessee wasn't so hot from two-point range, either, finishing at 28.1 percent overall. Jordan McRae was 0-of-8, Jarnell Stokes 1-of-7.
"If you hit shots in a zone, good teams will come out of it," said senior Cameron Tatum. "They'll extend more and that gives you the opportunity to drive the ball better."
Ole Miss never had to make that decision. Tatum hit his first two shots of the night, both 3-pointers. But it turned out to be fool's gold.
Tatum, in fact, would be the only UT player to manage a field goal until Trae Golden got a floater to fall with 2:19 left in the half.
Give Ole Miss the credit. This was a do-or-die game for the Rebels, as well. Coach Andy Kennedy ordered up a 2-3 zone and rarely showed anything else. Tennessee never solved it.
When the Vols beat Ole Miss on Feb. 22 in Knoxville, they attempted only 17 3-pointers. Friday night, they went double or nothing.
"Shooters like myself, Cam and Skylar, we don't find too many shots we don't like," said Golden.
"We settled for a lot of shots, but at the same time, we didn't knock 'em down."
Golden knocked down a short one on a drive into the lane with 4:05 left in regulation to put the Vols up 56-53. Tennessee got a stop and worked McBee free for a 3-point try from the corner.
That was attempt No. 25, and had it fallen, who knows, maybe it would have been the dagger that turned the night in UT's favor.
But it didn't fall.
After Ole Miss scored, Golden launched No. 26. It hit the top of the backboard.
The Rebels countered with three points the hard way, Terrance Henry driving for a basket and free throw.
So Tatum fired No. 27 and then McBee No. 28, to no avail.
McBee again for No. 29, an air ball.
Somewhere in that stretch, a more efficient, judicious Tennessee offense might have put the game away and we wouldn't be wondering today exactly how the NIT bracket works.
The Vols drove from irrelevance to the very brink of an NCAA tournament bid by not only playing hard but by playing smart.
I'm not sure that was the case Friday night.
There was no fault to UT's effort. But the Rebels matched it and then some.
"I think," Martin said, "they beat us at playing their game."
"We fought," added McBee, " we just came out on the short end."
Like so many of those long-range shots.