KNOXVILLE — Tennessee finally gave Jordan McRae some help, and the Volunteers finally picked up their first Southeastern Conference victory.
Jarnell Stokes scored 18 points and pulled down 11 rebounds Saturday as Tennessee defeated Mississippi State 72-57 to avoid starting 0-4 in SEC competition for the first time since 1993-94.
Josh Richardson added 16 points and McRae had 12 points as the Volunteers (9-7, 1-3) snapped a four-game losing streak. It also ended a string of four consecutive games in which McRae had scored over 20 points.
“We just wanted to overcome,” Stokes said. “We feel all we needed was one win, and now we can bounce back. We have a great opportunity Thursday (at Mississippi) to turn things around.”
The Vols lost three of their first four SEC games last year but rebounded to finish second in the league with a 10-6 conference record. The last time Tennessee started 0-3 in league play was 1997-98, when it went on to finish 20-9 overall and reach the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee believes it can produce a similar turnaround this year.
“Just keep playing well,” Richardson said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that tough. Just play like we know how to play, and we’ll be fine.”
Knoxville resident Jalen Steele scored 15 points in his return home, Fred Thomas had 14 points and Craig Sword added 10 points for Mississippi State (7-9, 2-2).
This game reunited Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin and first-year Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, who worked together as Purdue assistants in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
“We were friends before we were on the same staff,” Martin said. “But at the end of the day, we’re both trying to do the same thing — just get a win. It’s nothing personal. His wife hung out with my wife today. It’s just a ballgame. We move forward and move on.”
In Tennessee’s last two losses, McRae had been the only Vol to score in double figures. This time, he had more assistance.
Stokes, who had scored a total of 10 points in Tennessee’s last two losses, got more aggressive under the basket Saturday and responded with a double-double. His performance helped Tennessee outscore Mississippi State 42-16 in points in the paint. Tennessee improved to 7-0 this season in games in which Stokes makes at least six baskets.
“I wanted to use more of my athleticism,” Stokes said. “I feel that I’m more athletic than I’ve been showing. Sometimes I get confused with whether I should wait on a double team or try to attack it, that’s one of my struggles this season. I showed signs today of getting better at it.”
Derrick Reese made back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half to help Tennessee regain its momentum after Mississippi State cut the Vols’ lead to five points. Freshman guard Armani Moore had 11 rebounds, seven more than his previous career high. Trae Golden ended a slump that resulted in his removal from the starting lineup by scoring 10 points with a season-high nine assists.
Golden assisted on dunks by McRae and Stokes during a 13-2 run that also included a trio of 3-pointers from Reese.
“Definitely I needed that bad,” Golden said. “You’ve seen the past couple of weeks. It’s been rough. I’m just glad we got the win. That’s the most important thing.”
Mississippi State, which has only seven healthy scholarship players, stayed relatively close in the first half because of Steele’s productive homecoming. Steele, who grew up about 10 minutes from Tennessee’s campus, went 6 of 10 and scored 13 points in the first half while his teammates combined to score 16 points and shoot 7 of 22.
But leg cramps forced Steele to sit out most of the second half, and the Bulldogs struggled without him. Steele returned to the game in the closing minutes, but the Vols had pretty much put the game away by that point.
“They started to tighten up, and I had to sit down for a minute and get it stretched out so they wouldn’t be as tight,” Steele said. “By the time I got in, there were like three minutes to go. I wish I had gotten in sooner, but our trainer was (saying), ‘You can’t go in if your legs are still tight like that. Don’t risk it. You might risk injury.’ ”
The leg cramps have been a recurring issue for Steele, who entered the day ranked second on his team with 10.6 points per game.
“We’ve got to figure out what’s going on and get those cramps taken care of,” Ray said. “He’s playing well for us. He’s obviously our best player as far as coming back with some experience and being able to shoot the basketball. We’re already short as it is. It shortens our rotation even more.”
During a timeout in the first half, Tennessee honored San Diego Padres third baseman and former Vols baseball star Chase Headley for winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award and leading the National League in RBIs this season. Tennessee later introduced the Vols’ entire new football coaching staff, and head coach Butch Jones bumped chests with the Smokey mascot on his way to midcourt.