Cuonzo Martin on loss against Wichita State
WICHITA, Kan. — Jordan McRae didn’t stick around to celebrate.
He had scored five more than he needed to become the 45th Tennessee men’s basketball player to reach the milestone of 1,000 career points. But after a short radio interview, the senior guard was out of his jersey, out of Intrust Bank Arena and into his seat on a bus, ready for a flight out of Kansas that couldn’t come soon enough.
“Congratulations to Jordan on reaching 1,000,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I’m sure that will be the least of his concerns right now. But that is a tremendous honor.”
McRae scored a season-high 26 on Saturday, bumping his career total up to 1,005. The one-man effort wasn’t enough, though, and the Vols dropped a potential NCAA tournament resume builder to No. 12 Wichita State, 70-61.
Last season the Vols knocked off a 9-0 Wichita State team in Knoxville, back before the Shockers ran to the Final Four. WSU redeemed itself in the rematch with its first 10-0 start in school history coming at the expense of the Vols (6-3).
The Shockers’ record was celebrated. McRae’s was quickly acknowledged then pushed aside.
“It’s great for Jordan,” Martin said. “But he’s not a guy who is consumed with those type of honors. Maybe he will be years down the road. But he wants to win games.”
Chances to steal a good one slipped away. While McRae did his part, his teammates struggled. For the second time in a true road game this season, the Vols’ second-leading scorer, junior forward Jarnell Stokes, was a non-factor thanks to early foul trouble. No UT player other than McRae scored more than nine points.
“There were a lot of fouls,” Stokes said. “Every time we got some momentum, someone would get in foul trouble It’s kind of weird. I never got in foul trouble except on the road. Only two road games have I gotten in foul trouble. I just have to go back and watch film to see what I’m doing wrong.”
Said Martin after Stokes scored eight points and pulled down four rebounds in 21 minutes:
“Him being in foul trouble takes a key element away from what we do. He’s a guy that scores around the rim and makes plays. But we still gave ourselves opportunities.”
They sure did. At three different moments, the game was tied. The lead changed 14 times. UT led by as much as three in the first half and entered intermission up one. Then Wichita State guard Tekele Cotton caught fire in the second. He scored a team-high 19 points in the final 20 minutes.
“He was the key for those guys in the second half,” Martin said. “He did a tremendous job.”
Cotton took full advantage of the injury that slowed WSU’s usual leading scorer, Ron Baker, who tweaked an ankle during a practice this week. He poured ice water on any spark the Vols could muster. The best example came in a one-minute stretch midway through the second half.
It was Cotton who drew a foul on UT freshman Robert Hubbs and sank two free throws after Stokes had finally made a ripple in the game by throwing down back-to-back dunks. Cotton’s free throws cut UT’s lead to 44-43 with 9:32 to play.
And it was Cotton who seconds later ran the length of the court to block UT senior forward Jeronne Maymon’s layup from behind. Back on offense, he drew a foul on UT freshman Darius Thompson, made the shot and the free throw that followed. And just like that Wichita State was ahead, 46-44.
Maymon, who made three of eight shots for nine points, heaved a sigh when asked about the block.
“I’ve got to do a better job of that,” he said. “My team needs me to step up and make those type of layups, especially because they’re wide open He got a good block and it led to an and-one. That was kind of a momentum shift there, even though we were down only two. It got the crowd back into it.”
UT never cut WSU’s lead closer than two after that. The Vols were left cursing missed layups, bricked free throws (they missed nine), defensive breakdowns, and — although not publicly — the refs’ whistles that called 15 more fouls on them in the second half than the first.
“We are disappointed in how we played,” Stokes said. “They were a good team. We just know we were that close.”
For that reason, McRae securing his place in Vols history was bittersweet at best.
“Mac is a scorer,” Maymon said. “That’s what he does.”
It showed Saturday.
It just wasn’t enough.