He wrapped up his postgame press conference around 6:20 p.m., calling the Vols’ 64-62 win over visiting Missouri, “A great win for our program.” More extroverted than normal, he used the meeting with the media to cement his team’s position in the NCAA tournament picture, saying, “You’ve got to do the job and I think the job is done.”
Soon after, lumbering back toward the court at Thompson-Boling Arena for his postgame radio show, Martin was corralled. The 41-year-old could hardly stand still. A few passersby offered up a congratulatory, “Good game, coach,” and were thanked with a handshake.
Shifting his attention to a few residual post-press conference questions, Martin was asked, pointblank, “Is this the biggest win of your Tennessee tenure?”
He stopped shifting around. Thinking for a second, memories of last year’s two wins over Florida and a 2011-12 season-ending win over Vanderbilt flashed. Images of this season’s wins over Kentucky and Florida flickered.
This win over Missouri, though, was different.
“I think (it’s the biggest) because of what’s at stake and from where we were to get to where we are,” he answered. “We weren’t a good team early. We’re a good team now.”
A team that’s now heading to the SEC tournament as winners in eight of their last nine. The Vols stand as the fifth seed in the conference tournament. They will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between 12th-seeded South Carolina and 13th-seeded Mississippi State on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Nashville.
A win on Thursday would set up a meeting with fourth-seeded Alabama in a Friday quarterfinal game dripping with NCAA tournament implications.
Saturday’s focus wasn’t about to transition to postseason play, though.
The win over Missouri was the exclamation point to a late-season charge that inflated UT’s unlikely tournament bubble. Few saw this coming.
The Vols were down-and-out a little more than a month ago, rotting at 3-6 in the SEC and 11-10 overall.
Missouri vs Tennessee, March 9, 2013
They closed the regular season 11-7 in the league and 19-11.
Thus, like Martin said, beating Missouri beats any other signature win.
“A lot of teams in the country found themselves in the same position we did and they rolled over,” Martin said. “This team fought. That’s a credit to each individual believing in me as a coach, what we’re talking about as a staff, digging deep and getting it done.”
The closing eight minutes against Missouri were a microcosm of Tennessee’s season. The Vols were on the skids, then junior guard Jordan McRae took over to even things out, then UT surged to the finish line.
“It was beautiful,” Martin said. “You couldn’t ask for a better script.”
Seeing his Vols toiling along in early February, McRae staged an impromptu SEC player-of-the-year campaign over the last nine games. He averaged 21.2 points per game, shooting 46.3 percent from the field, 51.9 percent on 3-pointers and 84.8 percent from the free-throw line.
McRae was on the floor for all those aforementioned signature wins during Martin’s time in Knoxville.
Posed the same question tossed to Martin, he summed things up.
“The Vandy game was the best before we played Kentucky,” he began. “The Kentucky win (this season) was best before we played Florida. Florida was the best before we played Missouri.
“Missouri is the best now.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.