When the practice jerseys are on and the game uniforms are folded, coach Cuonzo Martin begins Tennessee’s work days with what he calls, “The Emphasis of the Day.” Encircled by his team, he offers a cerebral talking point that has nothing to do with Xs and Os.
A few weeks back, before the Vols mustered their ongoing late-season surge, the emphasis was “destiny or choice?” Ostensibly he asked, will you be taken for a ride or will you pave your own path?
When the uniforms were on for Saturday’s Senior Day regular-season finale against visiting Missouri, Martin reminded his Vols of that day. Under 10 minutes remained, an eight-point deficit left a sinking feeling and Martin gathered the team for a timeout.
“Guys, this is it, we’ve got to go now,” he said. “After this, there’s no turning back.”
The Vols are moving forward with steam.
A 16-4 run resulted from Martin’s message. A 64-62 victory over Missouri lets Tennessee choose its NCAA tournament destiny.
“You’ve got to do the job (to earn an at-large berth to the tournament) and I think the job is done,” Martin said.
Though unfinished business lies ahead this upcoming week. With the win, Tennessee (19-11, 11-7 SEC) landed as the fifth seed in the SEC tournament. Next Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Nashville, the Vols will face the winner of 12th-seeded South Carolina versus 13th-seeded Mississippi State, which meet in Wednesday’s first round.
Missouri (22-9, 11-7), which was led by Laurence Bowers’ 20 points, will be the sixth seed.
“At the end of the season, a lot of it’s about heart and the will to win,” said UT guard Skylar McBee, who celebrated Senior Day in style with fellow veterans Kenny Hall, Dwight Miller and Rob Murphy. “We have that right now.”
Junior guard Jordan McRae fueled the Vols’ season-defining 16-4 run with two 3-pointers and a tip-in at the rim. The first 3 cut Missouri’s lead to 50-46 with 8 minutes, 29 seconds left. The second bomb dropped with 6:33 left, trimming a wilting advantage to 53-52.
While the key to UT’s late charge was defensive stops, the scoring didn’t hurt.
“Just to see those go in — there was no better time for those shots to go in,” said McRae, who finished with a team-high 15 points scoring one point on 0-for-4 shooting in the first half that ended tied 29-29.
Up 55-53 with 3:56 to go, Golden triggered a bomb of his own giving UT a five-point buffer with 3:53 remaining.
“We all knew we could either sit down and let 22,000 fans see us lose when they came to support or pull out the victory any way how,” said Golden, who notched 12 points and four assists. “That’s what we did.”
Martin ditched his orange tie as the game clock approached the three-minute mark.
“It was getting heated,” he said. “It had to go.”
With UT leading 60-57 with 1:33 left, Missouri point guard Phil Pressey prepared to in-bound the ball under the Tigers’ basket.
As the referee readied to flip the ball to Pressey, UT’s Josh Richardson looked over to the sideline at a tie-less Martin.
“He was jumping up and down like, ‘Get your hands up!’ and so as soon as the ref handed him the ball I started jumping and I timed the lob,” said Richardson, who added 11 points.
The tipped pass turned into a turnover.
A layup by Jarnell Stokes pushed the Vols’ lead back to five. Stokes finished with another ho-hum 13-point, 13-rebound double-double, his 14th of the season. The sophomore power forward anchored an effort that saw UT outrebound Missouri, the SEC’s top rebounding team, 45-32.
“We wanted that game from a rebounding standpoint,” Martin said.
Five of those rebounds and seven points came from unheralded 6-foot-5 guard Quinton Chievous. The son of Derrick Chievous, Missouri’s all-time leading scorer (2,580 points), delivered an early spark in a sluggish first half.
“(Missouri is) a great team and it is really going to help us push to make a run in the SEC tournament,” Quinton Chievous said.
The Vols, notably the seniors, streamed toward the UT student section afterward. The announced crowd of 21,767 exceeded Thompson-Boling’s capacity.
“The crowd was amazing, especially for the last home game,” McRae said. “Even when we got down eight or 10, they were still a force.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn