GAME NOTES: The SEC regular season comes to a close on Saturday afternoon, as the Tennessee Volunteers play host to the Missouri Tigers at Thompson-Boling Arena.
This matchup has several postseason implications hanging in the balance. Not only are both teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but the top four seeds in the SEC Tournament get a coveted double bye into the quarterfinals. Tennessee is tied for fourth place in the league with Arkansas at 10-7, while Missouri is a game behind at 9-8.
Missouri has won back-to-back games and five of its last seven games to improve to 21-9 on the season, most recently coming from behind to edge out Texas A&M at home on Wednesday, 57-56. However, the Tigers have not fared well on the road, going just 3-6, which includes four straight losses.
Tennessee is also on the upswing as the season begins to wind down, as its 82-54 blowout at Auburn on Wednesday marked its third straight victory to improve to 19-11. The Vols have enjoyed the confines of Thompson-Boling Arena, winning 13-of-16 contests in Knoxville.
Missouri won the first matchup between the teams this season back on Feb. 15 in Columbia, 75-70, to improve to 5-3 in the all-time series.
The Tigers trailed for virtually the entire game earlier in the week, including by 11 early in the second half, but they mounted a comeback which was capped off by a pair of Earnest Ross free throws with seven seconds to play to lift them to the thrilling one-point victory. Although they shot only 34 percent from the field and committed a game-high 17 turnovers, they outscored Texas A&M at the foul line, 24-7, and won the rebounding battle, 39-24. Jabari Brown paced the effort with 20 points, while Jordan Clarkson added 14 points.
On the season, Missouri has displayed balance on both ends of the floor, outshooting its opponents from the field, 46.2 percent to 41.1 percent, while owning positive scoring (+5.1) and rebounding (+5.8) margins. Brown is the SEC's leading scorer, netting 20.1 ppg on 48.3 percent from the field, including 75-of-176 from beyond the arc. Clarkson brings 18.3 ppg to the table while handing out a team-best 3.5 apg, and Ross (13.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) rounds out one of the nation's best scoring trios.
The Vols had little trouble dismissing Auburn in their latest bout, as they shot 49.1 percent from the field, 18-of-20 at the foul line, won the rebounding battle (44-24) and committed just seven turnovers in their second straight blowout, having previous dismantled Vanderbilt by 38 last Saturday. All five starters scored in double figures, led by 20 points from Jarnell Stokes, who also added seven assists and seven rebounds. Antonio Barton shot 4-of-8 from 3-point range for 14 points, Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae posted 13 points apiece and Josh Richardson scored 10.
In addition to its stellar offense, which shoots 44.7 percent from the field this season for 72.5 ppg, Tennessee has established itself as one of the SEC's best thanks in large part to an outstanding defense, which yields a lowly 62.3 ppg on 41.4 percent shooting. McRae is the top scorer with 19.1 ppg, but he's shot just 5-of-16 from the floor over the past two games. Stokes (14.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and Maymon (10.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg) make up an imposing frontcourt duo, while Richardson brings 9.5 rpg to the mix.
The stakes are high in this regular-season finale, but figure for Tennessee to have the upper hand playing on its home floor, especially considering Missouri's road woes in recent weeks.
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