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Five Things: Vols stop State, 75-68

Let’s take a quick look at Five Things from Tennessee’s 75-68 win at Mississippi State on Wednesday night in Humphrey Coliseum.

Tennessee senior guard Jordan McRae (UT photo)

The Vols (17-11, 8-7 SEC) jumped on the Bulldogs (13-15, 3-2) in the first half and held on despite a lackluster-at-times second half and got a win they needed to stay in the picture for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth.

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EXHALE ... FOR NOW

There’s no such thing as an ugly win, especially when your team is on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

So, no, this wasn’t a pretty win.

But, no, it wasn’t an ugly win, either.

It was a win the Vols needed, and they got it. And they got it on the road. Mission accomplished.

Mississippi State is bad, but it’s been hanging around with most league opponents. So save your complaints this time. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t horrible. Top-ranked Florida trailed in the second half in Starkville this season.

Vols' Jarnell Stokes (UT photo)

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NO LEMON BOOTY THIS TIME

One of the nation’s worst teams in close games looked a bit more steady in rough seas Wednesday night, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do on the road and hasn’t been easy for Tennessee in any gym at times.

But Mississippi State has even less mojo than Tennessee in those moments, and the veteran Vols held off the huffing-and-puffing Bulldogs when they got the gap to within two possessions for much of the second half.

The Vols never trailed. They looked a bit wobbly at times, but they stayed on their feet. They made plays when they had to make plays.

In other words, kudos to the Vols for avoiding the “lemon booty.”

Still, though, Tennessee is just 3-10 in single-digit games, and they’ll probably have to play better than they did Wednesday to win their next three games.

But every game has different challenges, and the Vols were up to the challenge in Starkville — which had a pathetic-even-by-SEC-standards crowd in the stands for this game.

Vols coach Cuonzo Martin (UT photo)

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MOAR MAMBA

All-SEC senior guard Jordan McRae did what he usually does Wednesday night by scoring — he had a game-high 29 points and shot accurately from all over the floor — but he also did something he doesn’t do very often.

McRae had a career-high 10 rebounds.

As much as McRae gets teased for his rebounding — Vols coach Cuonzo Martin once jokingly called him the worst 6-foot-6 rebounder in basketball history — the fact is McRae’s job isn’t usually to rebound. Tennessee has two of the nation’s best rebounders in big men Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, and they tend to get any rebound in their vicinity regardless of the competition.

But when the basketball bounced McRae’s way Wednesday night, he corralled it the way a senior should late in the season. He did his job, and then some.

McRae also had four 3-pointers and two more highlight-reel dunks, and both slams came in less than a minute, with the first being a ferocious one-hander in the half-court run of play with no less than three Bulldogs near the rim. That one might make it on SportsCenter — a place McRae’s dunks tend to emerge from time to time.

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Vols' Jeronne Maymon (UT photo)

NO, NO, NO, JERONNE ... YES, YES, YES, JERONNE

Maymon was again frustrating at times Wednesday night, turning the ball over and missing bunnies on offense and even getting lost on defense — something that rarely happens to him.

But, much like a pro golfer grinding his way to par despite hitting the ball all over the course, also made a couple of huge plays down the stretch, continued to play his tail off despite a pair of painful knees and gutted his way to a double-double.

The big senior southpaw from Wisconsin finished with 10 points — albeit on 4-of-10 shooting despite being near the rim all night — and a game-high 11 rebounds.

No, Maymon isn’t what he was before the injuries. But it’s impossible to question the senior’s effort and his toughness. And he still grinds his ways to some good games and some solid games.

Wednesday wasn’t solid across the board for Maymon, but it was nonetheless vital for his team’s win. His rebound and save with less than two minutes left allowed the Vols to burn another 30 seconds of clock as they nursed a two-possession lead. Plays like that matter. A lot.

Vols junior guard Josh Richardson also deserves credits for overcoming a really-weird-for-him, 1-of-9 shooting performance and making some winning plays for his team on both ends of the floor. With Richardson and McRae, the Vols have two calm presences for late-game free throws. That’s a good thing to have. Perhaps they can find ways to win more close games down the stretch as a result.

Before Stokes senior point guard Antonio Barton — who returned to the starting lineup in this game — missed front-ends of one-and-ones in the final minute, Tennessee was en route to an incredibly good performance at the free-throw line Wednesday night.

Vols' Armani Moore (News Sentinel photo)

Still, though, the Vols ended up with a really, really good night at the stripe. They were 17-of-20. That’s 85 percent. Any coach at any level would take that on any night.

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MOAR MOORE

Tennessee got another solid performance from versatile sophomore Armani Moore Wednesday night, and that effort deserved a Five Things mention.

Moore, a 6-foot-5 player who came to Tennessee as a point guard but now plays the 2, 3 and 4 positions, had eight points on 3-of-5 shooting off the bench, and he added four rebounds and one assist.

It’s tough to see Moore ever becoming an all-conference-caliber player or anything like that, but he’s been an effective contributor at several points this season and tends to play pretty well when given opportunities — which he doesn’t always get, because Martin uses his bench the way many NBA coaches use theirs, occasionally making drastic, game-to-game changes based on matchups.

This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned this, and it surely won’t be the last, but Moore is one Tennessee’s hardest-working and toughest players, and as a result he’s one of this staff’s favorite players to coach. Don’t be surprised if he starts at the 4 position next season despite his size, and don’t be surprised if he plays pretty well in that role. He’s a tremendous athlete and tends to bring the team good energy when he’s on the floor.

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Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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