KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin believes the NCAA tournament debate surrounding his team can end.
As far as he's concerned, the Volunteers already have proved they belong in the 68-team field.
"I think the job is done," Martin said Saturday after Tennessee capped its regular season by rallying for a 64-62 victory over Missouri. "Now the next phase for us is to go try and compete in a tough SEC tournament in Nashville. As far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, I feel like the work is done."
Jordan McRae scored 14 of his 15 points after halftime and Jarnell Stokes recorded a double-double as Tennessee erased an eight-point, second-half deficit in front of a sellout crowd of 21,767 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The victory secured the No. 5 seed in next week's Southeastern Conference tournament and caused the Vols (19-11, 11-7 SEC) to end the regular season with eight wins in their last nine games for a second straight year.
Last year, the Vols also moved into NCAA contention with their late-season surge, but they lost 77-72 to Mississippi in their first SEC tournament game and settled for an NIT berth, ending their string of six consecutive NCAA appearances.
Even though they believe they already have earned their way into the NCAA field this year, the Vols probably can't afford an early exit in the SEC tournament.
"I think we should be (in), but we can't play like that," Stokes said. "You saw what happened last year with Ole Miss. That's definitely in the back of our head going into this tournament."
Stokes arrived at his postgame news conference wearing a symbol of the blue-collar mentality that helped Tennessee revive its postseason hopes.
All year long, Martin has reminded his players that they have to "wear their hard hat" each game and outwork every opponent. Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said he's heard that message every single day. Martin even brought along props Saturday by giving each player an orange hard hat with a white "power T" in front.
Stokes wore the hard hat proudly after the game. He had scored 13 points and had pulled down 13 rebounds to help Tennessee outrebound Missouri 45-32. Missouri (22-9, 11-7) entered the day ranked second in the nation with 41.4 rebounds per game and leading the SEC in rebound margin (plus-10.1).
"They were just tougher than us, point-blank," said Missouri forward Laurence Bowers, who scored 20 points despite sitting out most of the first half in foul trouble. "Jarnell Stokes, he wanted the ball more than we did."
Trae Golden added 12 points and Josh Richardson had 11 points for Tennessee. Phil Pressey had 10 points and nine assists for Missouri, but he was well off the mark on a 3-point attempt that would have tied the game with 12.6 seconds left.
Page 2 of 2 - After Pressey's shot landed out of bounds, Golden made a pair of free throws to put Tennessee ahead 64-59 with 11 seconds remaining. Missouri's Earnest Ross made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to account for the final score.
The Vols wouldn't have won without McRae's remarkable turnaround.
McRae, who had averaged 25.8 points in the six games leading up to this one, went scoreless in the first 18 minutes and didn't make his first basket until 14:33 remained. But he heated up from there and scored seven points in an 11-0 run that put Tennessee ahead for good.
"We were down at one point, so I knew I needed to step up for our team," McRae said. "I was just trying to do anything my team needs me to do. In the first half, it wasn't me, so it is what it is. The second half, they needed me to score, so I tried to do it for us."
After Missouri went on a 6-0 run to take a 50-42 lead midway through the second half, McRae sank his first 3-pointer of the night. He made another 3-pointer to cut Missouri's lead to 53-52 with 6:35 remaining. McRae also converted a putback off a Stokes miss to put Tennessee ahead for good with 5:36 left.
"He moved from a solid role guy to an elite player," Martin said. "In my opinion, (he's) the SEC player of the year."
The Vols got big performances from its star players. They also got a major contribution from an unlikely source.
Tennessee guard Quinton Chievous' father, former NBA first-round draft pick Derrick Chievous, played for Missouri 1985-88 and remains the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,580 career points. But the redshirt freshman had struggled to make much of an impact for Tennessee.
That changed Saturday against his dad's former team. Chievous established career highs in points (seven), rebounds (five) and assists (two).
"I knew we had to win," Chievous said. "I just tried to do anything in my power when I was on the court to do that."
This game was more critical for Tennessee than Missouri, which already likely had secured an NCAA tournament bid. The Tigers dropped to 2-8 in true road games this season, but their last five road losses were decided by a total of 16 points, including a 90-83 overtime loss at Kentucky.
"They were fighting to win a basketball game, and we were fighting for our lives," Martin said. "And that's the difference when it gets down the stretch of a game. I think we were just fighting for a little bit more."