This streak hasn't reached that extent. The Bulldogs(13-15, 3-12 SEC) have dropped ten straight though, and with three regular-season contests left could well match that mark. But Mississippi State's poor position made the matchup that much more risky for a Tennessee team that has little if any NCAA Tournament margin to give.
Thanks to some stout rebounding and late free throwing the Volunteers left Humphrey Coliseum 17-11, 8-7 SEC and post-season status intact for another test. "It was good for our guys to get this win," Coach Cuonzo Martin said. "It seemed they were playing with a 15, 20 pound weight on their backs."
The real weight was what Tennessee put in the paint, carried on the broad backs of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. The big Vols weren't such sharp shooters against the outmatched MSU frontcourt but converted enough chances for 14 and 10 points and 20 combined rebounds, 11 by Maymon in a double-double evening.
There just wasn't a lot the Bulldog front line could even attempt against the Volunteer muscle. "Coach said it was going to come down to toughness," Bulldog forward Rocquez Johnson said. "And I feel the other team played tougher than we did."
Though to his credit Johnson played some tough minutes of his own, producing a team-best 19 points which was one shy of his season and career high. With Tennessee intent on shutting down center Gavin Ware, it fell to Johnson to manufacture baseline offense. Or free throw line offense rather, as seven of his points were on ten charity chances.
If Johnson's strong showing against bigger foes was surprising, an 18-point night by Fred Thomas was entirely unexpected. Having been sat for the entire last game against Arkansas, the sophomore guard came off the bench almost immediately and stayed around for 32 minutes. He was 7-of-12 shooting and provided two of the three made-treys by State, though he needed seven tries to get them.
Thomas also passed and defended and just showed renewed energy after his one-game absence. "I feel I had a chip on my shoulder and I had to make it up to my team"
Energy was a little lacking from both sides at first though, as everyone seemed sluggish. Six minutes in it was a 10-4 Vol lead with all their points by Stokes and Jordan McRae. Mississippi State did catch a little spark in the form of jumpers by forward Colin Borchert, including the other three-pointer for a 16-13 score at 11:38. There just was no good answer for Tennessee's bigs, other than their own mistakes and missed shots, with a 35-24 halftime difference.
After shooting under 35% in the first period the Bulldogs found the formula in the second, with faster tempo and direct attacks for baskets. Or just getting the ball to Ware and leading scorer Craig Sword, neither of whom had an official attempt the entire first half. Both corrected that quickly with makes, but Tennessee matched bucket for bucket.
"We just had to score and get stops," Johnson said. "But we were scoring and let them score."
That changed five minutes in as Tennessee shots missed, even easy ones, and the Bulldogs converted enough opportunities to get within 43-39 on a remarkable running reverse layup by Sword. It was still a four-point margin at the quarter mark after UT's Armani Moore missed a trey. Three offensive rebounds later Maymon was fouled for free throws at 9:32. McRae asserted himself in transition for consecutive dunks and a 60-50 lead.
The home team had one last run in them, drawing within 67-63 at 2:16 and McRae missing from the arc. Again it was Maymon getting the rebound, giving the ball back to McRae for a foul and free throws. "It was huge," Ray said. "If you get that you have a chance to go out in transition. And we were in the bonus."
The Vols made eight-straight at the stripe to run out the game with State getting only as close as five points with eleven seconds remaining. McRae had four treys and a game-best 29 points and even provided ten rebounds when his bigger buddies had the lane blocked-out on Bulldogs. "He was pretty tough to guard," Thomas said. "He was the best guy I've guarded all year."
Ware had six points on a 10.3 average, all in the second half; and Sword nine on his 13.3 rate.
"I thought we weren't prepared for Tennessee's physicality, and it's not like it's an unknown quantity," said Ray. "But I thought the second half we started to fight and compete. We just gave away too many offensive rebounds to that team."
"I don't think we played well defensively. Give those guys credit for attacking the rim. But we got enough stops, and I thought Jordan played well enough offensively for us," Martin said. "I just told our guys it was more mental for us than anything else, even though it was a physical game. We said don't worry about bubble sand anything, just move forward."
The Bulldogs don't have much they can move towards left, other than a new month and hope of snapping their streak before it matches last season's. "We've got to make a turnaround one of these games," Johnson said. "We just can't keep losing."