STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—Tennessee played like the Southeastern Conference title was on the line.
And for 7 minutes, so did Mississippi State.
The seventh-ranked Volunteers jumped out to a big lead, then held off a late rally to beat the Bulldogs 76-71 on Saturday night in a game that had a postseason atmosphere at times.
“This was a championship game,” Tennessee’s JaJuan Smith said. “Both teams competed real hard and fought to the end. It was a nail-biter and we came out with a big one.”
Tennessee, fueled by 20 points from Chris Lofton and some unexpected long-range shooting by its two tallest starters, built a 17-point lead early in the second half, then watched as Mississippi State hit seven 3-pointers over the final 6 minutes to cut that lead to 73-71 with 39.2 seconds left.
It wasn’t the Volunteers’ most attractive win. The Bulldogs (14-7, 5-2), who entered the game atop the SEC West, while Tennessee is tops in the Eastern division (19-2, 6-1), held the Volunteers without a field goal over the final 3:18 to get back into it. But a key block from Wayne Chism, three free throws from Jordan Howell and just enough pressure on a young team gave Tennessee its 15th win in its last 16 games and its fourth straight over Mississippi State.
The road win will come in handy as the Volunteers chase an SEC title.
“We take a lot of pride on trying to get a win on the road because a lot of teams ain’t going to go in someone else’s gym and get a win in our conference,” JaJuan Smith said.
The game was billed as the conference’s best defense vs. its top offense, and it looked like defense would win early on.
Mississippi State opened by holding Tennessee without a point for the first 2:33. But the Volunteers twice hit four straight 3-pointers in the opening half, first to get back in the game, then to sprint out to a 36-27 halftime advantage.
After Lofton hit two 3-pointers for Tennessee to tie the game at 10 with 11:50 left, Tyler Smith hit a pair on back-to-back possessions that started a 6-for-6 stretch for the Volunteers over a 4-minute span.
Tennessee then split open the Bulldogs’ defense with a 16-6 run that included the second stretch of 3-pointers with two from Chism, who was left open on the perimeter as Mississippi State attempted to double-team another player.
Tyler Smith and Chism were 4-for-5 on 3-pointers in the first half and the Volunteers, the SEC’s top 3-point team with 9.5 per game, were 8-for-16. They hit 12 total and looked like their prowess from deep would make the difference after the Bulldogs started so poorly on offense.
“I found out why Tennessee is so good,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “They makes plays when they have to make plays. They have an incredible shooter in Lofton. They got some unexpected 3-pointers from Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism, and with that Tennessee was able to spread the game out in the first half.”
Tennessee pushed that lead to 17 early in the second half and kept it in the double digits until late. But Mississippi State hit 7-of-8 3-point field goals in a 6-minute span to cut Tennessee’s lead to 73-71 with 39.2 seconds left. Jamont Gordon missed one last 3-point attempt to end Mississippi State’s rally and Howell hit 3 of 4 free throws to ice the win.
Barry Stewart led Mississippi State with 21 points, including 6-of-8 on 3-pointers, Gordon added 17 and Charles Rhodes 15.
The Bulldogs had hit just 3-of-12 3-point attempts before the rally, but were done in by 12 missed free throws and Tennessee’s 18-8 offensive rebounding advantage that led to 18 second-chance points.
The Bulldogs have lost two straight after winning nine consecutive games overall and five straight to start the conference schedule.
Stansbury was stopped shy of his 200th win for the second straight game and Jarvis Varnado finished three blocks shy of the single-season school record of 106 with two. Rhodes had 10 rebounds and five of the team’s 10 blocks.
Lofton moved into seventh on Tennessee’s career scoring list, hopping Dyron Nix (1,877 from 1985-89), and now has 1,891. Pearl cited the experience of seniors Lofton, Howell and JaJuan Smith, who scored 15, as the difference in the game.
“Road wins are separators,” Pearl said. “We just had three senior guards that stepped up big time for us.”