Mike Strange: Tennessee's best players played when they had to

Mike Strange
Tennessee’s Jordan McRae  hits a 3-pointer over Auburn’s Frankie Sullivan during Wednesday’s game at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala. (Albert Cesare/Opelika-Auburn News)

Photo by Albert Cesare/Opelika-Auburn New, Opelika-Auburn News

Tennessee’s Jordan McRae hits a 3-pointer over Auburn’s Frankie Sullivan during Wednesday’s game at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala. (Albert Cesare/Opelika-Auburn News)

AUBURN, Ala. — Coach Cuonzo Martin has been repeating a phrase of late. The best players have to be who they are.

In short, they have to play like the best players. They have to deliver the goods.

Tennessee’s best players got the message Wednesday night. Not at the start, mind you. It took a while, but the Vols eventually moved the bottom line to where it needed to be.

As the finish line nears in the 2012-13 college basketball season, the Vols’ postseason dreams are still viable after toughing out an 82-75 win over a downtrodden but determined bunch of Auburn Tigers.

Tennessee showed little sense of urgency in the first half. That’s a surprise considering everything that’s on the table in the last week of the regular season.

Auburn, a loser of 13 of its past 14 games, led 35-32 at the break and then 46-38 after yet another Frankie Sullivan basket early in the second half.

At that juncture, the monitor on Tennessee’s fragile NCAA tournament prognosis was slowing toward a flat line.

And at that juncture, Tennessee’s best players remembered who they were.

The Vols pulled their bacon out of the fire with a 12-3 spurt that went something like this:

Trae Golden attacked the lane and converted a three-point play.

Then Golden got on the front end of a fast break, was fouled and converted both free throws.

Then Jordan McRae, for whom nothing was coming easily, took a Quentoin Chievous handoff, scored and converted the and-one.

Tennessee led 46-44. After an Auburn trey to regain the lead, Jarnell Stokes imposed himself for a dunk off a Golden feed.

Finally, McRae followed his own miss with a second-effort tip-in for a 50-47 lead.

The issue was far from settled but Tennessee was fully engaged.

McRae and Golden finished with 21 points each.

“They all did their job,’’ said Martin, “and everything else fell in line.’’

Stokes, the third wheel in Tennessee’s triumvirate, recorded his 13th double-double of the season. But he flirted with an interesting but dubious triple-double.

He finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds and — get this — nine missed free throws, going a jaw-dropping 1-of-10 at the line until Martin benched him to avoid further malpractice.

Fortunately for the Vols, it wasn’t contagious. The rest of the roster was a combined 26-of-28.

Delivering when the clock was stopped and everything was stationary wasn’t enough, though. They had to make plays when the bodies were flying.

“We had to try to find our energy,’’ McRae said. “It was Senior Night and they came out with a lot of energy. We had to match theirs.

“I don’t think I played that well, but we got the win. Trae played a great game.’’

He did indeed. Golden, coming off one of his worst games, a 78-68 loss at Georgia on Saturday, was back to being his assertive self.

He got his points and helped his teammates get theirs by dishing six assists.

“Auburn played with a lot of emotion,’’ Golden said, “but we needed this win. It was a tough game.’’

Tennessee played with just enough motion when it mattered.

Now, Saturday’s Senior Day game with Missouri at Thompson-Boling Arena is ripe with meaning.

“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,’’ Golden said. “I can’t wait.’’

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.

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Comments » 6

td writes:

From this point forward, NOBODY gets a night off if the Vols want it. "Lock down defense" and "light it up offense" is all it takes, and these guys are absolutely capable if they play focused, smart, team basketball. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

tnvol4ever writes:

Just need to get consistent play from the "best" players. Richardson and Hall are the X factors. Both have shown they can knock down some mid range jumpers and also their free throws. McBee has got to at least shoot a respectable percentage. I like our chances at home against Missouri. Should be a battle and won't come easy.

SouthPaVol writes:

Very well said; this article hits the crux of the next three games--show up and do your job. We can't afford for our "big three" to take a day off or show up with a headache. The team needs to take care of their bodies and minds, come prepared to play and give what it takes.

On a personal note, this will be my granddaughter's first UT game--a packed TBA and the post-tournament on the line. It's so worth the three hour drive for her to see this. I'm a little excited to, well I will be after we take care of business. Go Vols!

volaholic45 writes:

Stokes was sure putting the "throw" in free throw. Amazing.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

Golden knows what he needs to do to win. No more excuses for him. Stokes knows he needs to make at least half his free throws!! I'm gonna rename my handle "StokesChokes" if he does that again.(not that he'd ever see this). McRae needs to do what he's mainly doing. Richardson needs to go to the lane and use that sweet short jumper. A few more of those dunks would be nice. Hall needs to keep shooting his short jumpers too but if they don't go in then just slam it in. McBee needs to...uhh well hmm...
Moore needs to just be aggressive when he's in...ditto to the rest. ENERGY!!!

We need more enthusiasm next game. Senior night. Lot's of fans. Let McBee shoot a few. Let Murohy in on the rotation(one or two shots maybe unless he makes them then just leave him in till he misses)(ok not gonna happen games too important).

We need a huge lead so the seniors can lose it back.hehe

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

All 3 will have to shoot well wire to wire..A 7 minute scoring drought will get us killed. This 4 guard line up will NOT fly against Mizzo..They have 2 of the best forwards in the SEC and I don't know how we will stop them, especially Bower who is scoring 20 on everybody..Like I said we will have to have a monster shooting game because defensively we don't match up

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