With his team down to six scholarship players and coming off a taxing night game on Wednesday, Mississippi State coach Rick Ray called for a zone defense aimed at slowing the pace. Vol coach Cuonzo Martin called for a fast tempo and Skylar McBee, the Vols' designated zone buster.
McBee came off the bench to drain a pair of early 3-pointers that helped Tennessee race to a 21-9 lead, and the fresher Vols were never seriously threatened en route to a 69-53 victory at Bridgestone Arena. The win earns Tennessee a 2:30 Central Time (3:30 Eastern) quarterfinal date with Alabama on Friday.
Tennessee's superior depth was crucial against the short-handed Bulldogs, who were playing their second game in 21 hours. Jordan McRae and McBee nailed 3-pointers in a 12-0 spurt that gave Tennessee a 12-4 lead, then McBee drained another 3 as the bulge swelled to 21-9.
Shortly after closing to 21-14, the Bulldogs appeared to run out of gas. Relentlessly attacking the rim, Tennessee parlayed the foe's fatigue into three dunks, three layups and an 18-footer by McRae in a 14-2 explosion that widened the gap to 19 points (35-16) and basically settled the issue.
McBee said Tennessee's game plan was to exploit Mississippi State's short bench from the opening tip.
"Before the game you know that you've got to put the pressure on," he said. "Guys are going to get tired, so we ran a lot of motion. I think that was a key factor in some of the success we had because you could tell their guys were getting a little winded."
The fact McBee and McRae made some early 3s against State's zone helped take the wind out of the Bulldogs.
"Some guys hit big shots early," McBee said. "When you hit your first shot it gives you a little confidence and boosts you up. Shooting it good early was definitely a factor."
Up 35-19 at halftime, the Vols appeared headed for a Tennessee waltz. All they had to do was keep their focus. They didn't.
"After halftime we definitely relaxed a little bit, kind of let off the gas," said sophomore wing Josh Richardson, who contributed 4 points, 5 rebounds and a game-high 4 assists to the victory. "We can't have that."
A rash of Tennessee turnovers and defensive lapses enabled Mississippi State to pile up points after the break. Freshman Craig Sword produced 13 points in the first 15 minutes of the second halfand, with 4:42 remaining, the Bulldogs trailed by single digits (58-49) for the first time since 23-14.
"We were definitely letting Craig Sword find his spots … get where he wanted to get," Richardson said. "He was killing us for a while there."
McRae came to the rescue at this point, scoring seven of Tennessee's final 11 points. He recorded his first basket of the second half with 4:27 left, banking home a driving eight-footer and getting fouled. He missed the free throw but Jarnell Stokes put back the rebound, capping a four-point possession that widened the gap to 62-49 and closed the deal.
"That was huge for us," McRae said. "We were up nine, and Jarnell got a big offensive rebound for us."
McRae finished with 17 points, including a spectacular 360-degree dunk in the final minutes. He also contributed 3 blocks and 2 steals but committed 4 turnovers. Trae Golden added 14 points but he also was guilty of 4 turnovers. Stokes added 10 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals. Quinton Chievous chipped in 10 points and 4 rebounds in 13 relief minutes for the Vols, now 20-11.
Sword starred in defeat for Mississippi State, which closes at 10-22. The 6-foot-3 freshman guard scored 19 points, dished out a couple of assists and recorded 3 steals.
Tennessee shot 51.8 percent from the field, outscored the Dogs 42-24 on points in the paint and blitzed its opponent 21-1 in bench points.
After pushing the pace against Mississippi State, Tennessee may look to slow the pace Friday against Alabama. The Tide's fullcourt pressure gave the Vols fits in two regular-season meeting – Tennessee losing 68-65 in Tuscaloosa before eking out a 54-53 win in the Knoxville rematch.
"I think the key for us is not letting Alabama rush us," McBee said. "We can't let them get us in an up-and-down game. We've got to run our offense and get good looks. If we do that, I think we'll be fine."
Asked why the two Tennessee-Alabama games were decided by a total of four points, McBee replied: "I think they're a lot like we are – a tough, physical, defensive team. They've got some athletes and they do a great job in their press."
Richardson also sees similarities in the Vols and Tide.
"It's two teams that have a lot of length and athleticism," he said. "Rodney Cooper at the 4 position is definitely a mismatch for anybody and Trevor Releford is one of the best point guards in the nation. They've got a lot of talent, so we've got to match their intensity."
After first- and second-round byes, fourth-seeded Alabama will be the fresher team when it faces fifth-seeded Tennessee on Friday. McBee isn't sure that's significant, however.
"I think there's advantages and disadvantages," he said. "Alabama didn't have to play today, so they're rested, but we got a game under our belts. We got a feel for the gym, a feel for the rims, so I don't think there's any key advantage to them having a bye."