Tennessee's season-long frustrations only got worse after a 70-69 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday.
Following a Tobias Harris dunk with 10 seconds remaining, the Volunteers (17-12, 7-7 SEC) failed to get a stop on the defensive end and allowed Mississippi State's Wendell Lewis a slam of his own with three seconds left, giving the Bulldogs (15-13, 7-7 SEC) a road victory in front of a Thompson-Boling Arena announced crowd of 20,777.
"We got beat by three really good players today — (Kodi) Augustus, (Ravern) Johnson and (Dee) Bost — and we didn't have enough guys to step up for us," UT coach Bruce Pearl said.
As has been the case all season, Tennessee didn't have a third player step up to complement Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris on the offensive end.
"We need a third or fourth guy," Pearl said. "No question about it. And we just haven't had it."
Hopson scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Harris chipped in 16 points and eight rebounds. No other Vol scored in double figures.
Mississippi State, however, had three players score in double figures, despite the absence of Knoxville native Jalen Steele (torn ACL) and talented big man Renardo Sidney, who had just six points in 10 minutes of action and missed the entire second half.
Johnson led the Bulldogs with 20 points. Bost had 14 points and dished out 10 assists. Augustus added 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"This win is special because you know what a quality team we just beat and a quality program we just beat with the job Bruce Pearl has done," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "So that makes it special. It is not like we came up here and beat a bad team. We beat a very good basketball team that is well-coached and as good as anybody in this league. They have proven that a few times."
Tennessee led by as much as eight just past midway through the first half, but Mississippi State went on a 13-0 run to take a 30-25 lead with 3:44 left in the first half. Harris scored Tennessee's final nine points of the first half to help send the Vols into the locker room tied with the Bulldogs at 34-34.
Mississippi State led by as much as seven in the second half, but a Steven Pearl reverse layup with 4:24 remaining in the game gave the Vols the lead at 60-58.
Trailing 68-65 with 53 seconds left, UT point guard Melvin Goins connected on two free throws to cut the Bulldogs' lead to one, 68-67. After getting a defensive rebound, Hopson went coast to coast and was fouled driving to the basket with 13 seconds left.
Hopson made the first free throw, but missed the second. Luckily for the Vols, the Bulldogs couldn't handle the rebound and knocked the ball out of bounds.
Coming out of a timeout, UT executed an in-bounds play perfectly, culminating in Harris' uncontested slam to give the Vols their final lead of the night, 69-68.
"We flip-flopped Tobias and Josh Bone in positions and had Tobias set that last screen for Scotty knowing that they would jump out on Scotty," Pearl said. "Tobias was extremely patient."
The Bulldogs then pushed the ball up the court with Bost, who drew a double-team by attacking the basket, before passing to the wide-open Lewis, who scored the game winner. UT fans wanted a travel called on Bost, as he appeared to lose his balance while making the pass.
"As far as their transition is concerned, Mississippi State had no timeouts, and Dee Bost does what a point guard is supposed to do," Pearl said. "They get it to him, and he goes to the rim."
The Bulldogs scored on five of their last six offensive possessions.
"Down the stretch, our identity of toughness, rebounding and defense was nonexistent," Pearl said.
The loss drops the Vols to just 10-12 since starting the year 7-0. It also was the seventh loss at home on the season, the most under Pearl at Tennessee.
"The energy of our crowd has been great, but it has not inspired our players to elevate their games," Pearl said. "Our players have not been elevated because of the home support.
"Maybe it's because it is what it is, they are what they are, and this is what they have."
What Tennessee has is a team that struggles on the offensive end and one that is missing leadership.
"We're just not playing together in the half-court offense," Harris said. "That's what Coach preached to us in the locker room ... We're not playing together. We're not making open passes. We're not looking for each other. That sums it up right there pretty much."
"We are not getting good leadership from within the team," Pearl said. "We have some competitors, but I have no leaders."
Coming off a big road win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, the Vols were looking to build some momentum. Instead, they came out uninspired against a Mississippi State team that was down two starters.
"I didn't think our energy or passion was what it needed to be," Pearl said.
Tennessee will travel to South Carolina for a Thursday night game that will be nationally televised on ESPN before returning home for the regular-season finale on Sunday, March 6, against Kentucky.
—Matt Dixon is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MattDixon3.