- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Tennessee’s Jordan McRae sliced down the lane past three Mississippi State defenders and had a clear path to the basket.

His head told him to take the safe layup. His emotions told him to go for the dunk.

Emotion won, the dunk was a violent, impressive success and the jubilant Volunteers were well on their way to a much-needed 75-68 road victory over Mississippi State on Wednesday night.

“If it was up to me, I’d just lay it in,” McRae said. “But just for the simple fact that it brings energy to everyone on the team - it’s something you’ve got to do sometimes.”

McRae poured in 29 points and grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds as Tennessee earned a victory that helped stabilize the program’s NCAA tournament aspirations.

Jarnell Stokes scored 14 points while Jeronne Maymon added 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Tennessee (17-11, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) won for just the third time on the road this season. The Volunteers never trailed and led by as many as 14 in the first half, but the Bulldogs cut it to 67-63 with 2:14 remaining.

McRae hit two free throws to stop Mississippi State’s run and preserve the win. The victory keeps the Volunteers tied for fourth place in a crowded SEC race.

“It’s good to get this win,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “It seemed like we were playing with a 15, 20 pound weight on our back. It’s good to get it off our back and play the basketball game. Whatever happens, happens.”

Mississippi State (13-15, 3-12) has lost 10 straight games. Roquez Johnson scored 19 to lead the Bulldogs while Fred Thomas scored a season-high 18.

Tennessee has been stuck in the middle of the SEC’s widespread mediocrity this season. The Volunteers were one of seven teams tied for fourth place at the beginning of the week with a 7-7 league record.

Martin juggled his lineup for Wednesday’s game, starting guard Antonio Barton for the first time since Jan. 25. Barton didn’t do much, but McRae and Stokes did, and it was enough to secure the victory against the lowly Bulldogs.

McRae shot 9 of 19 from the field, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range. The Volunteers had a 43-35 rebounding advantage.

Tennessee started fast, getting back-to-back buckets by Stokes in the first few minutes - including one on an offensive rebound and dunk. The Volunteers were much bigger than the Bulldogs and used that bulk to their advantage in the first half, scoring 22 points in the paint on the way to a 35-24 halftime lead.

But Mississippi State fought back early in the second half, cutting the lead to 52-48 on a 3-pointer by Thomas with 10:55 remaining.

Tennessee regrouped quickly and McRae threw down two vicious dunks in a row to push the Volunteers lead back to 60-50. McRae’s first dunk in the sequence was the one right through the heart of Mississippi State’s defense while Bulldogs’ coach Rick Ray shook his head in disgust.

“I thought that at the beginning of the game we weren’t prepared for Tennessee’s physicality,” Ray said. “It’s not like it’s an unknown commodity that Tennessee is going to come out and be physical, but they came out and knocked us on our heels right away.”

Ray said he was pleased the team fought back and embraced the physical nature of the game, but Tennessee’s 17 offensive rebounds were too much to overcome.

Mississippi State hasn’t won a game in more than a month and an encouraging 3-2 start to conference play in January is now a distant memory.

The game was played in a mostly empty Humphrey Coliseum and the fans who were in attendance couldn’t muster much energy even when the Bulldogs made their run in the second half.

Mississippi State has been competitive lately, losing the last five games by 10 points or less.


Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP



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