The Tennessee Vols dug a hole they couldn't dig their way out of Friday night against Memphis … but that didn't stop Jordan McRae from grabbing a shovel and trying.
McRae scored 21 points over the final 15:23 as the Vols whittled a 20-point deficit to four inside the final minute. The visiting Tigers made just enough free throws down the stretch, however, to hold on for an 85-80 victory.
Hot-shooting Memphis hit 64 percent (16 of 25) from the field and 80 percent (4 of 5) from 3-point range en route to a 42-28 halftime lead, then expanded the bulge to 53-33 early in the second half. Responding to a large deficit by launching a rash of 3-pointers generally proves counter-productive … but not if you make them, and McRae made them.
After producing a driving three-point play, he hit three consecutive 3-pointers from the left wing. Following another successful dribble-drive, he drained a 3 from the right corner that trimmed the deficit to 64-54. During that incredible six-minute span McRae scored 17 points in a 21-11 spurt that got the Vols back in the game.
McRae, who finished 5 for 12 from behind the arc, was asked if he sensed he was “on” during that stretch.
“The first shot, no,” the 6-foot-5 junior wing said. “But I figured I made one, so why not try two and then three? That's kind of how that happened.”
When it was suggested that his 3-point flurry might have been an act of desperation once the deficit reached 20 points, McRae shook his head.
“We needed somebody on the offensive end to step up,” he said. “It seems like when one person does it, somebody else follows.”
That somebody in this case was Josh Richardson. The 6-foot-6 sophomore scored back-to-back buckets, then assisted Kenny Hall on another as Tennessee closed to 66-60 with 6:47 remaining. Memphis surged ahead 77-66 but Richardson scored seven points in a 9-2 spurt that trimmed the deficit to 79-75 with 46 seconds remaining. He tacked on a 3-pointer with 7.7 seconds left to finish with 16 second-half points and a career-high 20 for the night.
Apparently, McRae's second-half surge inspired his teammate to elevate his own game.
“Nobody else was really rolling like that,” Richardson said. “Once Jordan started going, I figured somebody had to come with him. I figured I'd be that guy to do it.”
McRae, who finished with a career-high 26 points, appreciated the help, noting: “Josh attacked and took the shots when they were giving 'em to him. That's what we need from Josh every night.”
Richardson, whose previous career-high was 12 points, seemed only mildly pleased with his Friday night scoring outburst.
“I guess this should boost it a little bit,” he said of his confidence. “But I usually just look at the L (loss) or the W (win), and that L tonight doesn't really feel too good.”
Memphis, now 10-3, shot 56.4 percent from the field and 63.6 percent (7 of 11) from 3. Tennessee, now 8-4, shot 43.9 from the field and 38.1 (8 of 21) from 3. The Vols dominated the backboards 42-29 but finished with more turnovers (13) than assists (11). Kenny Hall (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Jarnell Stokes (11 points, 9 rebounds) were productive on the inside for the Big Orange.
Ultimately, Tennessee lost because it couldn't contain mercurial Memphis point guard Joe Jackson (20 points, 7 assists, 4 steals).
Jackson proved too much for Vol point guard Trae Golden, who produced just 4 points, 1 assist and 2 turnovers in 23 lackluster minutes.
When asked how much Golden's recent shoulder injury hampered him in his head-to-head battle with Jackson, Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin replied, "I don't think it was a factor.... You've got to accept the challenge."
Jackson set a blazing tempo from the opening tip and, surprisingly, the Vols elected to run with the quicker and more athletic Tigers.
Asked how comfortable he was with the brisk pace, Martin replied: “I'm fine with it. We can play up and down. That's fine. We just did a poor job in the first half with our transition defense.”
McRae, who thrives in uptempo, open-court situations, liked the quick pace, too.
“It was a fun game to be in – up and down,” he said. “But at the end of the day we had to stop Joe (Jackson) in the fullcourt, and we didn't do that.”
Freshman Derek Reese (ankle sprain) and junior D'Montre Edwards (knee sprain) missed the game. The Vols return to action Wednesday, hosting Ole Miss in their SEC opener.