ST. LOUIS — No. 13 Tennessee came into the Southeastern Conference Tournament as one of the conference’s top defensive teams.
It was the team’s defense that bailed out a struggling offense in the Volunteers’ 62-59 victory over Mississippi State in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday night.
The second-seeded Volunteers (24-7) led nearly the entire game, but the Bulldogs (22-11) had an opportunity to take the lead in the final 10 seconds. Down 61-59, Xavian Stapleton missed a 3-pointer that would have put the Bulldogs ahead.
Tennessee struggled to put away Mississippi State at the end, missing a slew of free throws. The Volunteers finished 17 for 28 from the free-throw line, but outrebounded the Bulldogs 50-33, limited them to just one assist and hauled in 22 offensive boards.
“To give up 22 offensive rebounds and one assist and you have a chance to win, that would be pretty amazing, to be honest with you,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said.
Admiral Schofield scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Grant Williams finished with a double-double, notching 10 points and 11 boards. Williams alone earned six offensive rebounds.
“We had 22 offensive rebounds, and that was the difference,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We know that our biggest Achilles heel all year has been rebounding. We talked about it a lot, not so much offensively where we want to go get it, but trying to do it on the defensive end.”
Lamar Peters led the Bulldogs with 22 points and Quinndary Weatherspoon scored 17 points. Weatherspoon’s brother, Nick, left the contest after Tennessee’s Kyle Alexander’s foot collided with his face as Alexander was contesting a fastbreak. Play resumed after a 10-minute stoppage.
“You pray for then and you have a moment where you have to take a step back, but it’s still a game,” Williams said. “You still have to compete. That’s what you have to understand. You have to talk to your team and let them know we’ve got a 20-minute game left.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs made a valiant effort to survive in the tournament, but fell just short at the end. This likely puts an end to Mississippi State’s NCAA Tournament chances, but it should be a tough out in the NIT if it participates.
Tennessee: The Volunteers continue an impressive season, but their clip from the free-throw line was concerning. Tennessee’s offense wasn’t pretty, but its stellar defense can make up a lot of ground.
Nick Weatherspoon had to be carted off on a stretcher and transported to a local hospital. Howland said postgame that athletic director Bo Hemphill told the team that Weatherspoon was moving and conscious. Weatherspoon’s brother Quinndary said Nick asked about the score of the game.
“At that point, I was just trying to play for him, try to play with a lot of energy like he play with,” Quinndary Weatherspoon said. “Basically, I did what he wanted me to do to try to play as hard as I can and try to come out with the win.”
NOT SO CHARITABLE
Tennessee entered the tournament shooting 75.8 percent from the free-throw line, the second highest mark in the conference. But the Volunteers missed a season-high 11 free throws against the Bulldogs.
“It was pretty painful, but it’s part of the game.” Barnes said. “Seventeen for 28 with key guys that normally make those just makes it tougher on you.”
Mississippi State will wait until Sunday to find out its postseason fate.
Tennessee will face the winner of Arkansas vs. Florida in the tournament semifinals Saturday.