One look at the box score from Tuesday nights win over the LSU Tigers and you’d notice Tennessee’s ‘Big Three’ performed to perfection.
Jordan McRae had a career-high 34 points on six-of-six shooting from behind the arc, Trae Golden had 20 points and a team-high eight assists, and Jarnell Stokes chipped in with his eleventh double-double of the season.
When Cuonzo Martin’s team is getting that kind of production from it’s star players, the Volunteers become very difficult to defend.
“This is a different team,” said Martin after an 82-72 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena. “This is the team I thought we’d be at the beginning of the season, but you go through things – guys have to learn, guys have to grow.”
Each of the three stars for Tennessee has experienced growing pains themselves at some point this season. It’s how they’ve responded that has the Volunteers in position to make a run at the end of the season.
“This is definitely what we’ve needed all season,” said Stokes, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds. “With this team I feel like we have about three or four guys that can score and that’s hard to guard. You can’t focus on one man.”
If that was the Vols problem earlier in the season, they certainly seemed to have righted the ship as of late. One reason for the offensive outburst is the return of point guard Trae Golden, who struggled early on and missed a couple of games due to injury.
Golden is averaging 18 points and five assists during the Vols’ current four game winning streak.
“Trae’s really the floor general on our team,” said McRae, who benefited with 13 made baskets, also a career best. “He makes plays for everybody else and when Trae’s playing like that and Jarnell’s playing like that, I’m getting open shots out there.”
Tuesday, McRae put on a shooting clinic. He made every play with ease and couldn’t miss from the floor. Tigers head coach Johnny Jones admitted after the game they just didn’t have an answer for him defensively.
Tennessee’s ‘Big Three’ accounted for 67 of the Volunteers 82 points Tuesday night. That was enough to lead the Vols to their seventh SEC win of the year after winning only one of their first five in conference play.
“We just have to continue to stay humble and understand that just a week or two ago we were 3-6,” said Golden. “We can’t get too high. We must continue to work as a team and if we continue to do that then we will be fine.”
If Tennessee continues to play the way they have during the winning streak, they figure to be a tough out the rest of the way.
“This is the best basketball we’ve played this year, I’ll say that,” said McRae. “We’ve got to finish off the job. We still have a lot more basketball to play and if we just keep playing our hardest, we’ll be fine.”
Looking ahead, the Vols have a road contest against Texas A&M before returning home to welcome the first place Florida Gators to Knoxville. Now that all three viable scoring threats have emerged, big man Jarnell Stokes is hoping some of the attention will be taken off him.
“When guys are making shots that frees me up,” said Stokes. “I feel like the next time we play, I won’t be the focal point of their scouting report. It would be good too, because I probably won’t get double teamed if they’re playing like that.”
If all three play the way they played Tuesday night, the Vols have a lot to look forward to in the final five games of the season. Where the ‘Big Three’ will take them, only time will tell.
“The ceiling would be us winning the SEC Tournament,” said McRae. “Just like [coach] said though, there’s going to be something different we have to work on every game.”