Cuonzo Martin on his second season as UT's head coach
He missed his first shot Tuesday night. Made one, then missed another.
So five minutes into the game, the Tigers of LSU had no idea what was about to hit them.
On the plane ride home LSU should have had the sense it did enough to come into Thompson-Boling Arena and steal a win from Tennessee.
Johnny O’Bryant was a beast. The Tigers played hard, gave no quarter. They shot well enough and won the rebound battle.
But there was just nothing that could be done about Jordan McRae.
“He was the man tonight,’’ said LSU guard Anthony Hickey. “He packed his team (on his back).
“I told him, ‘You led your team.’ That was a good thing.’’
McRae was the man, all right. And if he wasn’t, Tennessee wouldn’t have been notching an 82-72 win, its fourth straight.
If McRae wasn’t the man, a crowd announced at 15,086 wouldn’t have left celebrating another fun night to follow a fun Saturday when the Vols embarrassed Kentucky.
LSU vs Tennessee, Feb. 19, 2013
McRae was nothing short of amazing. He scored a career-high 34 points, the most by a Vol since Chris Lofton dropped 35 on Texas in December 2006.
He hit all six of his 3-point shots, matching a school record for most makes without a miss set by JaJuan Smith in 2008.
“He was just hot,’’ said Hickey. “You can’t do nothing about that. He lit it up.’’
McRae lit it up in the first half. Then he turned up the wattage in the second.
The Vols, leading 40-30 at the half, couldn’t afford to blink. LSU can score. This wasn’t going to be a 62-60 game.
Tennessee managed 11 field goals in the second half. McRae accounted for seven of them.
He missed only two shots in the second half. He most emphatically did not miss when, leading 54-47, Trae Golden found him slashing down the left side on a fast break. McRae tomahawked an ESPN Top Plays-worthy dunk to ignite the crowd and keep the Tigers at arm’s length for another possession.
When all was said and done, he was 13-of-18 from the field.
So he sat in the interview room and held a box score in his hand. Someone asked how it looked.
“I had three turnovers still,’’ he said, then grinned. “Other than that, it looks pretty good.’’
Did he see a career game coming on when he laced up his sneakers? No, not really. But he did feel pretty good in warm-ups. It might, he thought, turn out to be a decent night.
“Just like you guys,’’ he said to the microphone and notepad holders. “You have a good day at home, work’s gonna be fun.’’
His fun, LSU’s misery. At 6-foot-5 with a considerable wingspan, McRae was going to pose a tough matchup to the Tigers, who start two short guards. But this was ridiculous.
“We’d do something,’’ said Hickey, “and it’d be another three.’’
But there were more than threes. Asked his favorite basket, McRae skipped over the treys and the dunk.
“I’d say the tip-in I got late over Johnny O’Bryant,’’ he said. “I think that was a big play for us.’’
There was another sequence involving a McRae rebound and O’Bryant that was just as big, maybe bigger.
With 3:21 left, O’Bryant missed in close, McRae beat him to the rebound and O’Bryant was whistled for his fifth foul. He and his 24 points went to the bench.
“He bumped me a little bit,’’ said McRae, “but I sold it a lot.’’
Sold it and walked to the other end of the floor and hit his only two free-throw attempts of the night for a 75-65 lead.
That was it. He was done at 34. His appreciative teammates got the Vols to the final horn.
But the season’s final horn hasn’t come yet. Possibilities are becoming intriguing.
“We’ve got to finish the job,’’ McRae said. “We’ve still got a lot of basketball to play.’’
Anyone will be hard pressed to play it better than McRae did Tuesday night. He was the man.