February 27, 2014 1:15:37 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- It's as if Rick Ray saw this way Wednesday's game was coming for days. Tennessee used its physical play to dominate a undermanned Mississippi State squad in the post and then hung on in the second half for a 75-68 road victory.
Tennessee (17-11, 8-7 in Southeastern Conference) is led by one of Ray's closest friends in the head coaching fraternities and knew the style the Volunteers would bring to Humphrey Coliseum. In the large form of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee dominated the 15-foot by 12-foot rectangle known as the lane.
"I thought from the beginning of the game that we weren't prepared for Tennessee's physicality and it's not like it's a unknown commodity," Ray said of Tennessee's style of play.
At one point during the first half, Tennessee led 16-2 on points in the paint before MSU post players Gavin Ware and Roquez Johnson could answer on either end of the floor.
"They kind of knocked us on our heels at first before we really embraced the physicality," Ray said.
In SEC road games this year, Stokes was averaging 16 points and 13 rebounds and the Memphis, Tenn., native didn't disappoint by dumping 14 points and nine rebounds. Of those nine rebounds, five of them came on the offensive end as Tennessee ended with 17 new possessions following getting the basketball off a miss.
"I don't think they got a lot of baskets off those offensive rebounds but what that obviously does is give them another 35 seconds and another 35 seconds," Ray said. "When you're down, the most important thing you need is that 35 seconds to play offense."
Tennessee, who projects to be on the bubble line for a possible NCAA tournament at-large selection, hadn't won a SEC road game in nearly two months after losses at Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M. The Volunteers simply maintained a discipline level that pleased their third-year head coach, who has been undersized with outside talk about his job security riding on a NCAA berth.
"It was more mental for us even though it was a very physical game to get over the hump and stop worrying about NCAA bubbles," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. "Once we just started to worry about playing basketball the best way we can, we were fine."
When Tennessee went into scoring slumps in the second half, Jordan McRae was there to either knock down a open jump shot or power through a rim-shaking dunk. The Volunteers senior leading scorer ended Wednesday with 29 points and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes. Of the six three-pointers converted by Tennessee, McRae accounted for four of them and was 7-of-8 from the foul line. He was the one perimeter threat MSU had to also account for when they dumped the ball into the low block for Stokes or Maymon.
"I feel like thus far he was the best guy I've ever had to guard all season," MSU guard Fred Thomas said. "With the type of offense they run, he's coming off scattered screens and you got to stay down all the time. I know I'm a good defender but he just kept making shots."
Johnson ended with a team-high 19 points and was a main component for Tennessee getting in late foul trouble to cause stress for Volunteers fans. Johnson's 10 free throw attempts were all off power moves to the goal and were a main factor in MSU being able to keep the deficit no greater than nine for the final eight minutes.
"I was telling the guys that we have to make a turnaround in one of these games because we just can't keep losing like we are," Johnson said.
Just three days after sitting the entire loss at Arkansas Saturday, Thomas exploded on the scene with energy, intensity on the backboard and a emotional spark off the MSU bench. The sophomore from Jackson finished with a season-high 18 points, three short of tying for a career high, and tied a season high with six rebounds. Ray was more than appreciative of the effort from his 6-foot-5 wing player as the second-year coach even helped him up and patted him on the behind after Thomas dove out bounds near the sideline for a loose ball.
"I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder because I let my team down by not playing against Arkansas," Thomas said. "I was trying to come out very aggressive and contribute any way I could."
Thomas' 32 minutes was a indication of the complete package Ray had been looking for out of his sophomore for nearly two years.
"The key is asking if this is just a one time affair with Fred Thomas or is it a situation that he goes forth from this and does some things that he accomplished tonight," Ray said. "He can guard the other team's best player and be effective that way or he can rebound the basketball. Fred Thomas is much more than a three-pointer shooter if he understands and embraces it."
The loss for MSU represents its 16th straight defeat in the month of Feburary under Ray and Thomas said after arguably his most complete performance that the program's 10-game losing streak is starting to carry a burden.
"This sort of reminds me of last year (MSU went on a 13-game SEC losing streak in 2012-13) and that was pretty tough," Thomas said.
MSU returns to the road against another NCAA tournament bubble team for a 12:30 p.m. start Saturday at Missouri. That contest will be televised regionally by SEC TV.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.