*CORRECTION: Earnest Ross' name was misspelled in a previous version of this article.
Just a few short minutes after tip-off of Missouri’s biggest game of the season, the Tigers fell asleep.
It looked like it would be just a nap, as Missouri failed to score on seven straight possessions and fell into a 10-point deficit thanks to its inability to break down Tennessee’s man-to-man defense.
It looked like it would be just a nap.
But Missouri turned out to be in a game-long slumber, losing 72-45 Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.
With the NCAA Tournament hopes for both bubble teams on the line, Tennessee out-jumped, out-muscled and out-played a Tiger team that looked surprisingly listless for a group that had so much to lose.
The loss firmly removes Missouri (21-10, 9-9 Southeastern Conference) from the NCAA Tournament bubble and all but ensures that the Tigers need to win next week's SEC Tournament to reach the Big Dance.
They'll have the No. 8 seed in the tourney, which begins at the Georgia Dome on Wednesday and will feature Missouri's game against No. 9 Texas A&M at noon on Thursday.
The Tigers topped A&M 57-56 in Wednesday’s Senior Night nail-biter at Mizzou Arena. The winner of the rematch will play Friday against No. 1-seed Florida — the first team in history to go 18-0 in SEC play.
But if the Tigers play like they did Saturday, it doesn’t matter who they play. They won’t be able to beat anybody.
Their offense never woke up on its way to the lowest single-game point total for a Missouri team since 1997. The Volunteers dominated the boards. And as the game dragged on, Tennessee started embarrassing the Tigers with steals and transition dunks.
Missouri shot an abysmal 2-for-17 (11 percent) from behind the 3-point line and gave out only five assists. The Tigers received a sub-par performance from one of its best players and nonexistent ones from its other two.
Jordan Clarkson led the Tigers with 13 points, the only Tiger to finish in double figures. But Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross* were virtually invisible, combining for just 10 points on 2-for-16 shooting. Brown and Ross both made one field goal apiece, and combined to shoot 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
A different "Big Three" overshadowed Missouri’s trio.
Tennessee received 16 points from guard Antonio Barton, and 15 points and 10 rebounds from forward Jarnell Stokes. Guard Jordan McRae, who scored 31 at Missouri on Feb. 15, contributed with 11. McRae’s reverse dunk in transition put Tennessee up by 30 in the second half. His corresponding free-throw gave Tennessee its largest lead of the game at 70-39.
The numbers were lopsided in every respect.
Tennessee out-rebounded Missouri 45-28. Stokes had his double-double by halftime. The Volunteers grabbed 18 offensive rebounds alone.
The Tigers didn’t have an answer.
The Volunteers are one of the hottest teams in the country going into the conference tournament. They now head to Atlanta having won their last four games. They haven't trailed in any of them.
Missouri, on the other hand, has lost its last five away from Mizzou Arena, and threw in the white flag early amid a sea of flying orange.
The Tigers disappeared for stretches on the offensive end, going through scoring droughts of 4:21 and 5:19 during the first half. The Volunteers countered with crisp ball movement that resulted in a series of open looks from downtown.
Tennessee held a 37-19 lead by halftime, and Missouri responded by starting the second half with three turnovers in the first 1:40.
A 3-pointer by Barton extended Tennessee’s lead to 60-32 with 9:50 to play. By that point the game became a consistent rotation of transition dunks, with McRae’s slam the final, stylistic dagger.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.