KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE (TICKER) —Ron Slay said goodbye to Thompson-Boling Arena with an early flourish, then helped Tennessee hang on for a 59-49 Southeastern Conference victory over No. 21 Mississippi State.
Slay scored seven of his 17 points in the first eight minutes of his final home game at Tennessee. Slay was one of five seniors to start for the Volunteers (16-10, 8-7 SEC East), who snapped a four-game losing streak.
After the teams traded baskets to open the game, Tennessee went on a 13-1 run to take a 15-3 lead with 12:05 left.
With the Bulldogs (18-8, 8-7 West) shooting just 20 percent (4-of-20) from the field in the first half, the Volunteers held a 27-21 lead at halftime and never surrendered the edge in the second half.
“Our defense was very impressive in the first half,” Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. “Mississippi State comes with many weapons and Mario Austin is one of the best post players in the country.”
Mississippi State got within 46-44 on a 3-pointer by Timmy Bowers with 6:12 left and had a chance to tie. Bowers had the ball stolen from Elgrace Wilborn and Tennessee got a three-point play from Brandon Crump for a five-point cushion.
Derrick Zimmerman’s two free throws cut the deficit to three points before Crump took a feed from Thaydeus Holden and slammed it home for a 51-46 advantage with 3:31 remaining.
Michal Ignerski’s 3-pointer cut the deficit to 53-49 with 1:49 left to play, but Tennessee freshman C.J. Watson made all six free throws in the final 90 seconds to seal the win.
“We never could get a stop when we needed it,” Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. “There were three possessions where the clock was running down and we gave a three-point play to Brandon Crump, a two-point bucket to Brandon Crump and fouled C.J. Watson. Those were huge plays.”
The Bulldogs suffered their third loss in four games as they limp towards next week’s SEC tournament. Austin and Bowers, who average a combined 30 points per game for Mississippi State, were held to 13 and eight, respectively.
“We missed some shots, they made some shots, and we dug a hole for ourselves,” Stansbury said. “Having to fight from behind on the road is tough.”
Bowers shot 3-of-12 from the floor, while Austin scored seven points at the free-throw line. Austin came off his worst effort of his season with just five points and one rebound in Saturday’s loss at Arkansas.
Mississippi State dropped into a tie for first in the West division with Auburn. The two teams meet this weekend in Starkville for the division title.
“We have the opportunity to play for the Western division title this weekend,” Stansbury said.
Slay, Holden and Jon Higgins were among five seniors honored by Tennessee before the game.
“First thing I want to say is how proud I am of these seniors for the great efforts they’ve given during the two years I’ve coached here,” Peterson said. “I’m happy to see them go out of here with a victory.”
Crump, Tennessee’s second-leading scorer behind Slay, came off the bench to add 16 points. Watson chipped in with 10 points and five assists.
Aside from Slay, Tennessee’s senior starters combined for 13 points, five rebounds and four assists. Holden and Higgins did the scoring, while walk-ons Zach Turner and Drew Clemmons played three minutes apiece in the beginning of the game.