Vols beat Mississippi State in key SEC battle
Schofield-led Vols win, tied for first in SEC
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Admiral Schofield drew the contact, got the shot off and fell to the floor as the fans in Humphrey Coliseum let out a collective groan. As the ball fell through the basket, a boisterous crowd of 7,548 seemed to feel Mississippi State’s chance at a marquee win slipping away.
Schofield had been named Southeastern Conference co-player of the week with Mississippi State’s Lamar Peters on Monday, but the Tennessee junior forward was in a league of his own Tuesday night on the Bulldogs’ home floor.
Schofield scored a game-high 24 points to lead the No. 16 Volunteers to a 76-54 victory over the Bulldogs, who were hungry for a boost to their NCAA tournament resume on senior night.
Instead, the Vols (22-7, 12-5) drew closer to at least a share of the SEC regular-season championship by handing Mississippi State (21-9, 9-8) just its second home loss of the season. The other was to Auburn, the team Tennessee is trying to overtake for the regular-season title.
Auburn lost Tuesday at Arkansas, so the Tigers and Vols are tied with a game remaining for each on Saturday. Auburn holds the tiebreaker for the top seed in next week’s SEC tournament, but the Vols assured themselves a double-bye in the tourney by beating the Bulldogs.
Schofield’s contested basket and subsequent made free throw capped a 12-2 run that put the Vols ahead 56-42 with 12:08 remaining. Before his trip to the free-throw line, Schofield stood and flexed his arms as he peered toward the stands.
“My teammates were flexing, so I decided to flex,” Schofield said. “This was a great team win.”
After leading much of the first half, Mississippi State never truly challenged the Vols again after Schofield found a groove offensively in the middle of the second half.
“Getting that double-bye and being able to get a rest those two days will be big,” said Lamonte Turner, who scored 12 points off the bench for Tennessee.
Tennessee hosts Georgia on Saturday to close the regular season.
“As a team, we’ve realized we’re in great position to win a championship,” Schofield said. “Not just win a championship in our league, but compete for one nationally.”
Vols coach Rick Barnes acknowledged that discussion about a league championship has been a locker-room topic recently.
“You can talk about them all you want. But you have to play every game like it matters, and for the most part this team has done that,” Barnes said. “Every game? No. But for the most part, yes.”
The Vols received scoring contributions from all nine who played Tuesday. Tennessee shot 68.2 percent in the second half after leading 40-34 at the break.
Tennessee and Mississippi State ranked first and second in the league in scoring defense entering the game, but the early pace did not reflect a defensive-minded approach by either team.
The Bulldogs jumped ahead 18-11 with 12:21 left in the first half. After a media timeout at the 11:16 mark, Tennessee issued a quick response.
Schofield scored four straight for the Vols out of the timeout, including a thunderous one-handed dunk off a Jordan Bone assist to bring Tennessee within 20-17.
The Vols tied the game at 25 and again at 30 when James Daniel banked in a 3-pointer from nearly midcourt as the shot clock expired with 4:48 left in the half. Finally, the Vols took a 32-30 lead on a Derrick Walker layup and then scored their last eight points of the half on free throws.
Tennessee shot 16 free throws in the first half compared to five for Mississippi State.
“It was because I thought we were really attacking in transition, putting the ball inside, fighting for space, doing the little things that we really, truly had gotten away from,” Barnes said. “But the execution was just better on the offensive end today.”
Barnes brought the team in on Sunday for a long video-study session after Saturday’s 73-65 win at Ole Miss. Tennessee had committed turnovers in the Ole Miss game, especially late, that bothered Barnes.
“Turnovers are OK,” Barnes said. “But we’re not going to make silly turnovers.”
After a convincing win over Mississippi State, the eternally vigilant Barnes was less critical.
“He was pretty happy,” Turner said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think he even had any complaints.”
Contact David Cobb at dcobb@ timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.
Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield goes up for a shot against Mississippi State on Tuesday in Starkville, Miss. Schofield scored 24 points to lead the Vols to a 76-54 victory.