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Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Scrapes By Mississippi State

Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee is on to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. It took a while (nearly two and a half hours), and the 62-59 win certainly wasn’t pretty. Imagine if Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa while drunk and riding in the back of a horse-drawn carriage with his eyes closed. It was that bad.

Avert your eyes, children, stats are coming: Tennessee shot 33.3 percent from the field on 20-of-60 shooting, which included making just 5-of-20 3-pointers. If that wasn’t ugly enough, the story of the game might have been the Vols’ performance from the free-throw line: they missed 11 of their 28 attempts.

Despite having a fairly good handle on the lead for most of the game, Tennessee just couldn’t put Mississippi State away. That proved more true than ever in the final minute after Lamar Peters converted a layup and-one to bring the Bulldogs within two. Schofield followed that with a missed 3-pointer, giving Mississippi State a chance to tie or take the lead.

And boy, was it close. A dribble, drive and pass left Xavian Stapleton wide open in the corner with a chance to nail a long shot and give the Bulldogs the lead. Alas, he bricked, dragging along the theme of the night for both teams, who couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat from beyond the arc.

The two combined to hit just 10 of 41 3-point shots. Tennessee shot 5-of-20 while Mississippi State shot 5-of-21. Like I said, it wasn’t pretty.

It’s tough to judge tonight’s performance. Between the ridiculous foul calls and numerous turnovers, the game took forever. And while things were taking forever, no one was scoring. It wasn’t a spectacle to behold.

But, the Vols’ defense was as impressive as ever.

The Bulldogs were obviously frustrated with Tennessee’s speed and length on defense — Admiral Schofield and the Vols’ guards were in the face of every perimeter shooter while Grant Williams’ physicality made life hell on the inside. If it wasn’t for Tennessee’s opportunistic and hustle play on the defensive side of the ball, it probably wasn’t a win tonight.

The Vols forced 17 Mississippi State turnovers, which was especially key since the orange and white themselves turned it over 18 times (Omaha!). Schofield, Bone and Bowden had their hands in passing lanes and all over the basketball. The Bulldogs really never looked comfortable all night.

On the flip side, neither did Tennessee. While Mississippi State was frustrated by its inability to get clean looks, the Vols were irritated with Williams’ inability to even get shots off. Credit the Bulldogs: No. 2 had a difficult time doing much of anything on the offensive end.

When Tennessee threw the ball inside to Williams, he was consistently swarmed. He never had 1-on-1 matchups — you can count the possessions he wasn’t double or triple-teamed on one hand. It often resulted in missed shots down low or turnovers, and it kept Tennessee from really getting away from Mississippi State on the scoreboard.

The bad news from there is that teams have a clear how-to for stopping Tennessee on offense: smother Grant Williams. It seems simple, but there aren’t many teams in the conference that can match Williams’ physicality or defend his passing ability. But the NCAA Tournament is a different story. Talented teams with length will give Tennessee trouble if the Vols can’t keep moving the ball to get guards open shots. And, as we saw tonight, they need to hit those shots, too.

Tennessee moves on to take on the winner of Arkansas and Florida on Saturday at 3:25 p.m. ET.

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