When Tennessee capped the regular season with a win over Missouri, coach Cuonzo Martin believed the Vols had locked up an NCAA Tournament bid.
Thus, to him, any wins in the Southeastern Conference Tournament were just icing on the cake.
On Thursday, the Vols hardly gained any style points. They did collect win No. 20 when they held off undermanned Mississippi State for a 69-53 in the second round of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Tennessee (20-11) notched its first 20-win season in three years and 25th overall and enhanced its case for at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. The fifth-seeded Vols advanced to play No. 4 seed Alabama in a quarterfinal Friday (2:30 p.m., SEC Network).
“I thought Tennessee was an NCAA Tournament team before we played them,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “I definitely think that now. I didn’t think they needed that win to validate them being an NCAA Tournament team.”
Jordan McRae scored 17 points, Trae Golden added 15, Quinton Chievous chipped in 10 and Jarnell Stokes nearly had a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds. But the Vols couldn’t build off a 16-point halftime lead. Sixteen turnovers, including 10 in the second half, allowed the Bulldogs (10-22) to stick around.
Despite having just six scholarship players, Mississippi State was outrebound just 35-33 and shot 41.9 percent in the second half. Craig Sword, who scored a game-high 19 points, pulled the Bulldogs within nine, 58-49, with 4:43 left.
Tennessee finally pulled away with an 11-4 run to close the game. McRae’s twirling 360 slam dunk with 90 seconds shut the door on a game that appeared to be over at halftime.
“I think that’s something we have to develop,” Stokes said. “I feel like we were up 15 and that’s just something you have to develop as far as the killer instinct, as far as going up 25. That’s just making us a better team. I feel like we went out and competed. But we just didn’t defend at a high level in the last 10 minutes of the game.”
After picking up their ninth win in 10 games, the Volunteers are rewarded with a rubber match against Alabama. The Crimson Tide (20-11) are also fighting for an NCAA bid. The teams split the regular-season series as both teams won at home by a total of four points.
Though the Vols feel confident about their postseason fate, they’re not taking anything for granted.
“We’re just going to continue to try to get as many wins as we can,” McRae said. “We really have to be prepared for that game. We have to be ready to go out of the gate. You can’t come out flat against a team like that.”
• No. 9 LSU 68, No. 8 Georgia 63: Two days after being named the SEC player of the year, Georgia sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope lived up to the billing in the opening game of the early session. But his 32 points and 13 rebounds weren’t enough to rally the Bulldogs (15-17) from a 39-19 halftime deficit.
Shavon Coleman scored 24 points to lead three LSU players in double figures. The Tigers (19-11) advance to play top seed Florida in a quarterfinal Friday (noon, ESPNU).