KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – For the fourth game in a row, Tennessee flexed its muscles early and never looked back and on senior day the Vols routed Missouri, 72-45, for their 20th win of the season.
Surging in a late-season push to make the NCAA tournament field, the Vols (20-11, 11-7 SEC) are playing as well as any team in the nation on both ends of the floor. The victory was Tennessee's 12th wire-to-wire win and fourth in a row.
Senior Antonio Barton continued his torrid stretch since rejoining the starting lineup. The guard was 4-of-7 from 3-point range and finished 16 points. Over the last three games, Barton is 13-of-22 from beyond the arc and the Vols are 8-0 when he makes three or more 3s.
Junior Jarnell Stokes had his 18th double-double of the season with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
In their final regular-season at Thompson-Boling Arena, Jordan McRae scored 11 points while Jeronne Maymon had four points and 10 rebounds.
Barton started the Vols off right with a 3-pointer, 53 seconds into the game and Tennessee led the rest of the way. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Derek Reese and Armani Moore put Tennessee up 18-6 with 12:55 left in the first half.
Another 3-pointer by Moore with 10:36 left coupled with Barton's second trey of the game, gave the Vols a 24-9 lead with seven minutes left in the game.
Tennessee held a 37-18 lead at intermission as the Vols continued to dominate play in the first half. Over its last three games, the Vols have outscored opponents 122-57.
The Vols continued their show in the second half in front of the season-best crowd of 18,519.
A 10-0 run, including two jumpers by Stokes, but Tennessee up 49-25 with 15 minutes left in the game.
The lead ballooned to 28 points on a Barton 3-pointer with 10 minutes left, that put Tennessee up 60-32.
Over the last three games, Tennessee has combined to win three SEC games in the most dominating fashion in nearly 50 years. Not since 1965, when Tennessee won three consecutive league games by a total of 98 points, has UT dominating three SEC teams.
Along with the Vols' wins by 38 over Vanderbilt and 28 over Auburn and the 27-point win over Missouri, Tennessee has won its last three games by +93.
Missouri (21-10, 9-9 SEC) was held to a season-low of 45 points. The loss by 27 points, is their second-worst since joining the SEC last season. At Florida, last season, the Tigers lost by 29.
The Vols' defense did tremendous work on one of the SEC's top scorers again. The league's top scorer Jabari Brown (21.4 ppg entering the game) was held to eight points and missed his first nine field goal attempts.
In the Vols' win at Auburn on Wednesday, Tennessee held Chris Denson's the SEC's second-leading scorer (19.9 ppg entering the game) to just three points.
Tennessee Head Coach Cuonzo Martin
"First and foremost- great crowd, great atmosphere. Thought the energy was great to send these seniors out in style. It was just a fun evening. Guys played hard again. I really think in the last three and a half games, not so much the first half at Mississippi State, but the last three and a half games we've been playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, really defending. Again, this is what I envision defensively- when you completely buy in and sell yourself to the team, you can defend at a high level. That's a credit to all the guys. Every guy is doing his part- pressuring the basketball, the bigs- last three or four games, I think Jeronne [Maymon] and Jarnell [Stokes] have been at a tremendous level with their ball screen defense helping recover and our post defense, as a team, we're clouding those lanes up making the dribble penetration hard. I'd like to think in some ways it kind of starts with Antonio Barton with his renewed confidence, making shots. He's at that level right now like Jeronne [Maymon] defensively- he's talking, he's active, he's helping recover. He's moving his feet. It's a great team effort, great win on both ends of the floor. We're doing it at a high level."
(On coming out strong)
"The thing I talked to the guys about is to just ride the waves of emotions on senior night. It is what it is. You can't control that. Try to maintain a level of focus- relentless focus. Just understand, let that energy drive you, but you can't lose focus. You can't get back the first play of the game. You make a 3-point, you still have to defend, rebound and play hard. Again, you have to go through Jarnell [Stokes] and Jeronne [Maymon], allow those guys to make plays. When you get 18 assists, we pass the ball a lot better. When we share the ball, great things happen. Guys were hungry. You can see the past two weeks with our guys the focus. There are some key guys changing some of their ways as far as the focus level. It's okay to be fun and joking, but there has to be a serious tone sometimes, because you have guys on the team, other guys follow their lead so you want those guys to set the tone."
(On Jordan McRae)
"I thought he was fine. He's going to shoot balls. He did a good job, but it's the same thing with [Jabari] Brown. If you have two elite scorers, those looks won't be easy, but I thought he was fine."
(On Josh Richardson)
"Josh has been definitive at that level. He really has. Again, he's one of those guys taking a more serious approach. Fun-loving guy, but when you're a defensive stopper, there's a tone, there's a presence you have to have, you have to set. The guy that you're going against, he needs to see that. I think Josh [Richardson] has done a good job of accepting that challenge."
(On great start these past few games)
"We have to go through Jarnell and Jeronne. That's how you set the tone. You have to double. It is hard to stop the guy if you don't double-team him. The same goes for Jeronne. It is hard to stop those guys, and if you don't double them, we are going to keep pounding the ball inside. I think that is the way we will win or lose ballgames. Those guys have to get their touches."
(On getting into the tournament)
"I am not on the committee, and I don't know what they think. For us, the most important thing is our game on Friday. We will figure out who we play, and that is the only thing that really matters."
(On getting a bye for the SEC tournament)
"It is great because we will have fresh legs, but it doesn't make it any easier. Some say that the teams who play the night before get a feel for the gym and baskets. The big thing is having fresh legs, and the coaching staff has to keep the level of balance."
Senior Guard Antonio Barton
(On if there is new team chemistry)
"We picked up on it a lot, it's just us going out there and having fun and trusting and believing each other"
(On the reason why the chemistry has picked up)
"Just coach telling us, coming down to the last games we have to give it our all.This was senior night so we wanted to go out with a bang"
(On his confidence level)
"My confidence level is high right now. Thanks to my teammates they are finding me and I'm knocking down shots. I just have to work and continue to get better"
(On how it feels to put games away early)
"It's shown what we are capable of. We had our ups and downs early in the season, were capitalizing on them now. We just have to keep remaining to stay focused and stay locked in and play defense"
(On trying to earn a NCAA tournament bid)
"Right now, honestly I'm not even focused on that. I'm just paying attention to the conference tournament coming up and we are going to take care of business there and we will just deal with that when we get there"
Senior Forward Jeronne Maymon
(On senior day recognition and last home game)
"It felt pretty good. It was kind of like a reel going off in my head all the good times and bad times I have had in Tennessee uniform. It was just a really good time."
(On what the team is doing to win these blowout games)
"We aren't scoring any different. I just think our defense is doing much better than what it has been. I think us collectively as a unit and individually have just been sitting down, locking up and playing great help defense. It is hard for teams to score when you are on the floor rotating like we are."
(On Josh Richardson's defending two of the top offensive players in the league and holding them to all-time lows)
"Josh is a hawk on defense. When we are talking as a unit it kind of discourages the offensive player so we got his back."
Junior Forward Jarnell Stokes
(On this game being a statement)
"I feel like it has been a statement as far as how well we have been playing lately. Something clicked after the Mississippi State game as far as defending as a team. The biggest thing is that we are over helping each other and depending on the other player to have your back. We are trusting defensively. On offense there is no such thing as a bad shot. I think when guys are playing confident then nobody is playing selfish."
(On what changed or clicked for the team)
"Guys are just playing unselfish, giving their body up, sticking to their roll and staying confident when their shot isn't falling. The way we are defending is amazing. I think our help defense is exactly how Coach Martin envisioned it."
(On whether it was a team meeting that changed things)
?"We had a long team meeting after Texas A&M. That was after the last game we lost. I don't know if that has anything to do with it."
(On the importance of dominating the boards)
"My goal was to get 20 (rebounds) coming into the game. I felt like this was a game I could go out and dominate on the glass, but second half I don't think I got any rebounds. I felt like Missouri kind of let up on the glass in the second half as a result it was kind of like I was competing with my teammates with rebounds. I definitely did my job as far as boxing out. The first half I felt like it was my bread and butter as far as rebounding goes. Some games I have gotten away from that I have been scoring more and not rebounding, but my bread and butter is rebounding."
Senior Guard Jordan McRae
(On tonight's win over Missouri)
"This is how you dream for your senior night to go out. You definitely don't want to lose, you want to win. But to win like we did and to play defense how we did was great."
(On what was going through his mind during his turn-around dunk)
"Like I said, it is senior night, it is my last night playing in TBA, so when I have a chance to go up and do something I did it."
(On tonight's game)
"Overall, it was a great game. We won by over 30, I think, 28 points. Antonio [Barton] was playing great, Jarnell [Stokes], everyone was playing well."
(On the focus to come out strong in the first half)
"That was what we wanted to do. If you look back at all the games we lost, we had trouble coming out in the first half, slow coming out, beginning the game slow. I think we have been doing a good job of coming out strong."
(On the defensive improvement)
"Just like coach Martin has been saying, everyone has been talking about defense. Defense is half the battle. So everyone has been doing a great job doing that."
(On if he thinks the team has done enough to make the NCAA Tournament)
"We have a game on Friday, so that is all we are thinking about."
(On what it would mean to go on a run at the SEC Tournament)
"It would mean everything to me. Like I said, it is my last year, we have a great team and a great shot of doing some good things."
Missouri Head Coach Frank Haith
(On the difference between this game and the teams' first meeting)
"It's Antonio Barton, he's a difference maker. He's playing at a level so much better than he was before. They're still the same team otherwise in terms of what they do rebounding, but I think Antonio Barton was the difference. We didn't play well, but they played good. Antonio Barton is light years above where he was."
(On Jabari Brown being held to eight points)
"I think they did a good job on him. We missed some shots, but they did a good job on him."
(On the performance of Barton)
"When he's making plays and they're playing with what they've got inside with Jarnell (Stokes), Jarnell makes it tough on you to guard him one on one, you have to double him. Barton made the shot and he was the one guy we were trying to help off of."
(On Tennessee's defense)
"I look at the numbers, (Earnest) Ross was 1-6, Jabari was 1-10, Jordan's (Clarkson) 4-12, that makes it hard for us when those guys don't shoot it well. We're 2-17 from three, I mean, we were getting some great shots, when we did get good looks, we didn't make them."
(On the rebounding margin)
"That was the difference in the game. We knew that was a key in the game, they had 18 offensive boards and 15 second-chance points, that can't be right, it seems like more, but that's what it says."
(On the offensive rebounds creating long possessions, wearing down Missouri)
"Obviously it does, that's what offensive rebounding does, it gives your team extra possessions, you have to defend for 35 more seconds. Give them credit, that's what they do and they didn't deviate from that."
(On ball movement slowing down the last two games)
"I don't know, we've got guys pressing a little bit, maybe. I don't know. We've got to make sure we're keeping that ball moving and that we're playing inside-out. One really bright spot was Keanau Post. I thought Keanau Post battled. I love he gave us some really good minutes. I was was really encouraged to see what he gave us out there."
(On if Tennessee looks like a dangerous postseason team)
"I've always thought they were an NCAA Tournament team. When they played at our place, I thought they looked like an NCAA Tournament team. I never thought they weren't. They beat the best team in the ACC by 35. So, I don't know what everybody else is seeing, but that's what I see."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)