In an afternoon filled with all sorts of raw emotions, one much-needed, never-before-seen feeling rose to the surface for every Tennessee Volunteer sporting new, neon-orange uniforms—undying hunger.
The Vols beat down their third straight opponent, dominating the Missouri Tigers, 72-45 on Senior Day in Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday to secure the No. 4-seed and a double-bye in the SEC Tournament.
Tennessee has won its last four games—all seemingly must-wins from a NCAA Tournament standpoint—by an average of 25 points per contest.
"For us to come out here and play these last four games like we played them," senior forward Jeronne Maymon said, "and won them in the fashion we won them in, it goes above and beyond what even I thought we could do."
UT senior point guard Antonio Barton led all scorers with 16 points, continuing his hot shooting as of late by going 4-of-7 from 3-point range. Junior forward Jarnell Stokes added 15 points and 10 rebounds, and at least six Vols scored seven or more points.
But instead of the offense fueling Tennessee's lopsided win, it was another 40 minutes of suffocating defense. The Vols held Missouri to 15-of-47 (31.9 percent) from the field and shut down SEC leading scorer Jabari Brown (1-of-10).
The Vols holding Missouri to its lowest first-half total (19) in the last five years has third-year head coach Cuonzo Martin wondering where the intensity had been all season.
"This is what I envisioned defensively," Martin said. "When you completely buy in and sell yourself to the team, you can defend at a high level. That's a credit to all the guys. Every guy is doing his part."
Leading from start to finish, Tennessee (20-11, 11-7 SEC) was trigger-happy from outside as the Vols went 6-of-16 from long range in the opening period. That allowed UT to build a 37-19 halftime lead that the Vols would turn into a massacre late in the second half.
With the Vols' guards stretching Missouri (21-10, 9-9) out, UT was able to go one-on-one in the post. That allowed Stokes to finish with another double-double—his 18th of the year—while Maymon added four points and 10 boards in his last home game as a Vol.
UT senior guard Jordan McRae, who scored 11 points in his final home game, thinks having weapons on the perimeter will prevent opponents from double-teaming in the post.
"When (Barton) is hitting shots like that," McRae said, "we're a hard team to defend, because a majority of the time, teams try to help off either Josh or (Barton).
"And with the way Josh has been shooting all year and the way (Barton) is shooting now, I think some teams are going to have to start going one-on-one in the post."
The Vols controlled Saturday's game from start to finish, but things got out of hand in the final minutes. UT's swarming defense allowed for plenty of fast breaks, leading to dunk after dunk for the Vols.
"Oh yeah, man," McRae said of the frequent dunks. "Derek got two or three. Jarnell was dunking. Josh was. We were just having fun out there, man.
"Any time you can beat a good team the way we did, it's just a great time."
It took about as long as they could afford, but the Vols have found their groove heading into the postseason. This four-game win streak is the first time all season that Tennessee has put together more than two straight victories in SEC play.
Now, the Vols will take that newfound momentum into the SEC Tournament, where they will open up on Friday against either Arkansas, Auburn or South Carolina.
Even though Tennessee will get the first two days off, Martin sees plenty of challenges ahead with his team hoping to lock up a NCAA Tournament bid in Atlanta.
"It's great for fresh legs," Martin said. "But it doesn't make it any easier, because some say the team that played the night before has a better feel for the gym and the baskets.
"I just think it's a case of fresh legs. And now, we have to do a good job as a staff of balancing the level you practice at, how long you practice, to maintaining some fresh legs, but also being able to get up and down the floor."