'Here it is'

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Unlike predecessor Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin is a man of few words. So, when his Tennessee basketball team fell behind by eight points with 10:04 left in Saturday's regular-season finale against Missouri, he was typically brief.

Addressing his squad after calling timeout, he basically needed just three syllables to summarize the entire 2012-13 season: "Here it is."

"It" was the opportunity to clinch an NCAA Tournament bid, an achievement the players have been pointing to since that gut-wrenching moment last March when they were passed over on Selection Sunday.

Martin's three-syllable speech must have been powerful because the Vols came out of the timeout with a tenacity they hadn't shown in the previous 30 minutes. One 18-3 explosion later, a 42-50 deficit had become a 60-53 lead. Tennessee made just enough plays in the final three minutes to hang on for a 64-62 victory.

"Down eight, we showed who we really are … a team built to fight," Martin said.

Both teams finish SEC play with 11-7 league records but Missouri is assured of an NCAA Tournament bid by virtue of a 22-9 overall record, a quality RPI and a good strength of schedule. Tennessee, 19-11 overall, is "on the bubble" with league rivals Alabama, Kentucky and Ole Miss – three teams with 12-6 conference records but few quality wins. By beating Missouri, the Vols have a 3-3 record against top-50 RPI teams. That should get them an invitation to The Dance.

Martin believes it will.

"I think the job is done," he said, again wasting no words. "This solidified it."

Missouri is a more talented team and probably played a better overall game than Tennessee did on Saturday. The Vols came out on top, however, and Martin believes he knows why.

"They were fighting for a ball game," he said. "We were fighting for our lives."

No one fought harder than sophomore post Jarnell Stokes, who recorded his 14th double-double of the season – 13 points and 13 rebounds. Six of the rebounds came off the offensive glass. Although Missouri is one of the NCAA's top rebounding teams, Tennessee won the backboard battle 45-32 by pulling down 18 offensive rebounds.

Martin used the Tigers' reputation for rebounding to challenge his team this week.

"The thing we talked about is: 'If they're the best rebounding team, then let's see,'" the Vol coach said. "Rebounding is toughness, so let's see if they're the toughest."

Tennessee's Jordan McRae fires up his teammates during a second-half run.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Not on this afternoon. Sophomore wing Josh Richardson showed his toughness by grabbing 7 rebounds (4 off the offensive glass), scoring 11points and doing a credible defensive job on star Missouri point guard Phil Pressey, who finished with 10 points and 9 assists but committed 3 turnovers and went just 4 of 12 from the field.

Missouri came out smoking, bolting to a 10-3 lead. Memphis native Laurence Bowers scored nine points in the first six minutes, then went to the bench with two fouls. Tennessee clawed back during his absence to pull even at 29-all by halftime.

With Tennessee scoring leader Jordan McRae struggling mightily (0 for 4 from the field, 1 point and 2 turnovers in the first half), Richardson scored Tennessee's first two baskets of the second half. When the Vols fell behind by eight with 10:04 left, it was Richardson who hit a 12-foot pull-up jumper to kick-start the 18-3 explosion that turned the game. He also made three free throws during that critical stretch.

"When our main guys aren't going, I figured I'd be the person to step up and take some shots," he said. "I'm a really unselfish player, so it's not my nature to jack up 10 shots or something like that. If I see we're struggling, though, I'll try to get something going for us."

Richardson's biggest play of the game came when he deflected and intercepted an inbounds pass with 1:30 left. Tennessee parlayed the interception into a Stokes layup that padded a 60-57 lead to 62-57 with 1:03 remaining.

"Coach was screaming, 'Get your hands up! They're throwing a lob," Richardson recalled. "I started jumping and got a tip on it."

McRae rallied from his awful start to finish with 15 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. He made two 3-pointers and three free throws during the game-changing 18-3 eruption. Trae Golden contributed 12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and just 1 turnover in 37 minutes at the point.

Golden sealed the victory by making both ends of a one-and-one with 11.6 seconds left, pushing a 62-59 lead to 64-59. The first shot was a thriller, however, bouncing four feet above the rim before settling into the net. Asked if he held his breath during that tense moment, he laughed.

"Oh, man, you have no idea," he said. "I was going to go ballistic if I didn't make it, so I'm just glad I made it."

The Vols also got surprising production from Quinton Chievous, who contributed 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a block in 14 backup minutes.

Bowers led Missouri with 20 points and 4 blocks, despite being limited by foul trouble to 24 minutes.

Several Vols called Saturday's game the biggest win of the season. Golden probably said it best:

"It's funny. I thought the Kentucky win was the biggest. Then I thought the Florida win was the biggest. Now I think this was the biggest win. This was our biggest game of the year, and we were able to push through."

See what the Tennessee head coach and select Vols had to say in the post-game press conference in the high-definition videos from InsideTennessee below:

Cuonzo Martin

Trae Golden

Jordan McRae

Jarnell Stokes

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