Sporting an incredulous stare paired with a scoffing smirk, Jordan McRae plainly declared, “They didn’t count.”
The “they” were five games this season that saw the Tennessee guard score more than 20 points.
They all ended in losses.
Blistering LSU with a career-high 34 points — including 20 in a lights-out second-half performance — McRae powered Tennessee to an 82-72 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
With the modesty of a monk, the Georgia native declared the evening, “A good day at work.”
Don’t tell that to the Tigers.
McRae finished the night 13-of-18 from the field, 6-of-6 from 3-point distance and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line. It was the best game of his three-year career and the best outing — points-wise — by a UT player since Chris Lofton poured in 35 against Texas in 2006.
“It’s good company,” noted Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin.
McRae’s numbers speak loudly. When they came speaks volumes. After LSU cut Tennessee’s lead to 66-60 with 5 minutes, 46 seconds remaining, he took care of the Vols’ next nine points. A 3-pointer preceded two layups. Then, with 3:21 left, his lone two free throws left UT with a 75-65 advantage.
The Tigers would get no closer than seven to close out the night.
None of this means it came easy. The Vols needed every second of McRae’s 38 inspired minutes. Thanks to him, the foot remains on the gas following Saturday’s ballyhooed 30-point rout of No. 25 Kentucky. Tennessee (15-10, 7-6 SEC) won for the fourth straight time.
“(McRae) made big plays, be it at the rim, at the three-point line, he played extremely well,” said LSU coach Johnny Jones. “He looked great and we just didn’t have an answer for him.”
The Tigers (15-9, 6-7) rode a 24-point, eight-rebound outing by sophomore Johnny O’Bryant III. The 6-foot-9, 256-pound forward was advertised as one of the few players in the SEC physically capable of banging with UT’s Jarnell Stokes.
It was the truth.
“It was like playing against myself,” Stokes said.
LSU vs Tennessee, Feb. 19, 2013
“If I wasn’t playing on the team, I’d pay money to see Jarnell and Johnny O’Bryant go at it,” added McRae.
He’d get his money’s worth. Stokes, one game after snapping a streak of six straight double-doubles, finished the night with 13 points and 11 rebounds. The sophomore is now the first Vol to notch 10 double-doubles in a season in 20 years.
“Even though your guard might be the leading scorer on the team, you have to go through Stokes in order for us to have success, and I think that’s the main reason why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Martin said.
The Vols came out cooking in the first half with McRae and Trae Golden stirring the broth. Runs of 12-3, 6-0 and 11-3 combined to build a 40-30 halftime lead. The guards scored 14 first-half points apiece, combining for 11-of-16 shooting.
Golden finished with 20, lost deep in the shadow of McRae’s outburst.
That’s not how the star of the night saw it, though.
“Trae can get anybody an open shot at any time,” said McRae, who made five of his career-high 13 field goals off Golden’s game-high eight assists. “Your only job is to hit your shots. I got a lot of open ones tonight.”
Carrying over their red-hot shooting against Big Blue, the Vols made 27 of 47 shots (57.4 percent), 10 of 15 3-pointers and 18 of 21 free throws.
“This is a different team,” Martin said. “This is the team I thought we’d be at the beginning of the season, but you go through things — guys have to learn, guys have to grow. I don’t think Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes would have been the guys they were at the beginning of the season.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn