Down 43-46 with five minutes left, Tennessee cranked up the defensive pressure, and the Tigers promptly wilted.
Kevin Punter began the late rally by draining a game-tying 3-pointer with 4:48 left. Armani Moore then forced a steal that he eventually converted into a driving layup, putting Tennessee on top 48-46 with 3:06 remaining.
After making a steal on the defensive end, Derek Reese tipped in his own miss on the offensive end as the Vols moved in front 50-46 with 2:07 left. A deflection by Josh Richardson forced Missouri’s third consecutive turnover. This miscue eventually led to a Robert Hubbs dunk as the lead swelled to 52-46. Namon Wright hit a 3-pointer for the Tigers but Richardson (1:12) and Punter (0:43.4) sank two free throws each as the gap widened to 56-49.
Richardson hit one more free throw and Punter two more down the stretch to seal the Vols’ seventh win in their past eight games. They now stand 2-0 in SEC road games, previously beating Mississippi State 61-47 at Starkville on Jan. 7.
Speaking on the post-game show, Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall called the performance “a gut-check win,” adding that he was “proud of my kids for the way they battled tonight. They never gave up.”
Tennessee shot an amazing 90 percent (18 of 20) from the foul line, including 13 of 14 in the second half. The free-throw accuracy was critical because the Vols were cold from the field (38.8 percent) and frigid from the 3-point line (23.1 percent).
Tennessee came up big defensively – forcing 14 turnovers, recording 6 steals and registering 6 blocked shots. Oddly enough, Missouri shot exactly 36.4 percent (20 of 55) from the field and 36.4 percent from 3-point range (8 of 22).
Moore played one of his best games as a Vol, sinking 6 of 8 field-goal tries en route to leading the team in points (15) and rebounds (11).
“He was relentless in driving the ball, getting to the foul line, getting to the rim,” Tyndall said. “He kept a couple of balls alive, going to the offensive glass. He’s 6-4, 210 pounds – playing every minute tonight at the 4 (power forward) – and he gets a double-double playing in the SEC. That’s nothing to do with anything but guts and toughness and being resilient.”
Punter, back in the starting lineup after opening Game 15 on the bench, added 12 points. Reese just missed a double-double with 10 points and 8 rebounds. Richardson scored just 8 points but contributed 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocked shots. Hubbs continued his improved play with 6 points and 8 rebounds for Tennessee, now 11-5 overall and 3-1 in SEC action.
Wright scored 13 points to pace Missouri, now 7-10 overall and 1-3 in league play. Memphian Johnathan Williams, who declined a Vol scholarship two years ago, scored 8 points for the Tigers – all in the first half.
Both teams shot miserably in the early going, and Tennessee trailed 17-21 with 4:13 left in the first half. Hubbs hit a five-footer from in front, Punter nailed a 3 from the left corner, then Hubbs made two free throws to cap a 7-0 spurt that put Tennessee on top 24-21 with 2:38 left to intermission. A 3 by Wright tied the score but Moore made a layup off a nifty pass from Reese to give the Vols a 26-24 halftime lead.
Tyndall turned to the element of surprise at the start of the second half, twice calling plays designed to get Moore (1 for 13 from 3-point range coming in) open looks from behind the arc. He nailed the second, capping a 7-2 spurt that put the Vols up 33-26 with 17:06 left.
“He missed the first one, and I said ‘I’m coming right back to you; next time it’s money,’” Tyndall recalled, later adding: “I just feel like when guys practice the right way, they’re coachable and they play with toughness and grittiness you’ve got to live with ‘em missing a shot or two. If they know you believe in ‘em and come back to ‘em, say ‘Hey, the next one’s in,’ a lot of times they’re going to make the next one.”
Tennessee built its biggest lead at 37-29 on two Devon Baulkman free throws with 13:52 remaining. Missouri answered with a 17-6 rally, however, that put the Tigers on top 46-43 and set up the Vols’ game-winning rally.
“I think we have a mentality about us now which is good,” Tyndall said. “Our chemistry is great. Guys are pulling for each other; they’re playing for each other.”
One of the key stats was free-throw attempts. Whereas the Vols were attacking the rim and shot 20 (making 18), the Tigers settled for jump shots and attempted just six (making three).
“We ran the set play for Kevin (Punter) to shoot the 3 and tie it,” Tyndall said. “Outside of that, we did not settle (for jump shots). We drove the ball, we got to the rim, we drew fouls, we made our foul shots. And that’s the key: Home or away, if you settle for jump shots, and the crowd’s on you a little bit, it’s tough to make those jump shots. But when you’re tough enough to stay relentless in your approach – the way we did the last 10 minutes – good things will happen for you.”
Tennessee returns to action Tuesday night, facing South Carolina in Columbia.