By Steve Megargee/The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jarnell Stokes scored 18 points and pulled down 11 rebounds Saturday as Tennessee defeated Mississippi State 72-57 to avoid starting 0-4 in Southeastern Conference competition for the first time since 1993-94.
Josh Richardson added 16 points and Josh McRae had 12 points as the Volunteers (9-7, 1-3) snapped a four-game losing streak. Trae Golden had 10 points and nine assists.
The Vols lost three of their first four SEC games last year but rebounded to finish second in the league with a 10-6 conference record. The last time Tennessee started 0-3 in league play was 1997-98, when it went on to finish 20-9 overall and reach the NCAA tournament.
Jalen Steele scored 15 points, Fred Thomas had 14 and Craig Sword added 10 for Mississippi State (7-9, 2-2).
This game reunited Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin and first-year Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, who worked together as assistants on Matt Painter’s Purdue staff in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
McRae ended a string of four consecutive games in which he had exceeded 20 points. He was the first Vol to score at least 20 points in four straight games since Chris Lofton in 2008.
The 6-foot-5 junior’s surge had included consecutive 26-point performances against Memphis and Mississippi, 21 points against Alabama and 23 points against Kentucky. But the Vols had lost each of those games. In Tennessee’s last two losses, McRae had been the only Vol to score in double figures.
This time, McRae had more help.
Stokes, who had scored a total of 10 points in Tennessee’s last two losses, got more aggressive under the basket Saturday and responded with a double-double. After being held to single-digit scoring in three straight games, Richardson made his first five shots against Mississippi State and had 11 points by halftime.
Derrick Reese made back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half to help Tennessee regain its momentum after Mississippi State cut the Vols’ lead to five points. Freshman guard Armani Moore came off the bench and pulled down 11 rebounds, seven more than his previous career high. Golden ended a slump that resulted in his removal from the starting lineup by reaching a season high in assists.
Golden assisted on dunks by McRae and Stokes during a 13-2 run that also included a trio of 3-pointers from Reese.
Tennessee made a concerted effort to drive to the basket more often. The Vols outscored the Bulldogs 26-6 in points in the paint during the first half.
Mississippi State stayed relatively close in the first half because of Steele’s productive homecoming. Steele, a Knoxville resident who grew up about 10 minutes from Tennessee’s campus, went 6 of 10 and scored 13 points in the first half while his teammates combined to score 16 points and shoot 7 of 22.
But a leg injury forced Steele to sit out most of the second half, and the Bulldogs struggled without him. Steele returned to the game with less than four minutes left, and the Vols had pretty much put the game away by that point.
During a timeout, Tennessee honored San Diego Padres third baseman and former Vols baseball star Chase Headley for winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award and leading the National League in RBIs this season. Tennessee later introduced the Vols’ entire new football coaching staff, and head coach Butch Jones bumped chests with the Smokey mascot on his way to midcourt.
More on this story in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.