NASHVILLE - Hoisting up out of their Bridgestone Arena seats, the men in crimson slipped out before the final horn.
They’d seen enough of the sneak preview.
In a rarely pretty, but hardly in doubt SEC second-round meeting, Tennessee pushed past Mississippi State 69-53 on Thursday afternoon. Point guard Trae Golden summed up a flat day saying, “A win is a win and we’ll take it.”
And that makes 20 of them. The victory boosted the Vols’ record to 20-11 and bolstered an NCAA tournament resume in need of a few more accolades.
Now those fellas in crimson await. Today’s quarterfinal between fifth-seeded Tennessee and fourth-seeded Alabama (TV: ESPNU, 3:30 p.m. Eastern), might as well be played inside the NCAA tournament bubble.
The Vols set the date behind four double-digit scoring performances against 13th-seeded Mississippi State (10-22). Tackling the task at hand early, UT built a 35-19 halftime lead the Bulldogs could never overcome.
The first half presented a Tennessee team stomping an undermanned underdog. The second half showed a team ready to run to the next day.
“We won the game,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “In this arena, in this setting, you win ballgames and move on.”
Junior guard Jordan McRae led the Vols with 17 points, including an eye-popping 360 dunk in the game’s closing moments. He was joined in double digits by Golden’s 15 points and 10 apiece from Jarnell Stokes and Quinton Chievous.
The Vols mounted a 14-2 run during a 5-minute, 35-second stretch late in the first half to build a 35-16 lead and sat on the cushion throughout the second half. They made 15 of 31 shots in the first half and led by as many as 19.
That was enough.
But there was still another half to play.
UT committed 10 turnovers leading to 12 Mississippi State points after halftime. The Vols shot 56.0 percent (14-for-25) in the second half, but let the Bulldogs stick around.
“Yeah we were (sloppy), especially me, trying to force too many passes,” McRae said. “I know we had a three-on-one (break) and I threw it at Jarnell’s legs. I’ve got to make sure I convert that.”
The Bulldogs cut UT’s lead under 10, 57-49, with 4:42 left. McRae answered by making a driving layup in traffic and was sent to the free-throw line. He missed the free throw, but Stokes corralled the rebound and converted a layup to push the Vols’ lead back to 12.
“They had 42 points in the paint compared to our 24,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “We had to find a way to limit their points in the paint.”
They didn’t. UT made 24 of its 36 field-goal attempts inside the 3-point line.
The one coming with 1:24 remaining was the day’s highlight.
Mississippi State guard Craig Sword, who led the Bulldogs with 19 points, looked to streak past McRae a little past halfcourt. Peeling the ball out, McRae instead reversed course up-floor. Zeroing in on the basket, the junior guard took off from the SEC logo in the paint and uncorked a spinning, flying dunk.
“Everyone was expecting him to do his signature windmill dunk,” Stokes said. “I think that topped it. No one expected him to do that.”
“I don’t know what made me do it, I just did it,” McRae said.
It was a perfect end to an imperfect game for the Vols.
Now it’s time for the Tide. UT and Alabama split the season series, each winning at home. Bama won 68-65 on Jan. 12. The Vols won 54-53 on Jan. 26.
“We played Alabama twice,” Martin said. “There aren’t going to be any surprises tomorrow.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn