KNOXVILLE, Tenn. • Missouri guard Jabari Brown shuffled out of the visitor’s locker room at Thompson-Boling Arena cloaked under a black hoodie while he stared at the ground. Maybe he was looking for an explanation to the fiasco that unfolded in Mizzou’s regular-season finale.
“Frustration,” he said Saturday, describing his team’s mood after Tennessee jackhammered the Tigers 72-45, Mizzou’s most futile scoring day in 17 years.
If anything, the quiet walk to the team bus gave Brown some relief from the suffocating defense Tennessee just unleashed on the SEC’s leading scorer.
The way the Tigers (21-10, 9-9 Southeastern Conference) played Saturday, with their postseason fate on the line, a merciful end to a spiraling winter might come sooner than later. If an NCAA Tournament spot indeed was up for grabs between Mizzou and Tennessee, the Volunteers (20-11, 11-7) wasted little time securing their place in the field of 68.
The Tigers? They looked more suited for that other postseason tournament.
And short of winning four games in four days at this week’s SEC tournament, that’s probably where they’ll land — settling for the National Invitation Tournament for the first time since 2005.
Can a team that hasn’t won more than three consecutive games since December pull off four straight in Atlanta as the No. 8 seed?
“We ain’t got a choice,” Brown said after scoring a season-low eight points, “so I think we will.”
That might be wishful thinking, especially with Mizzou’s path in the bracket. If the Tigers can get past No. 9 seed Texas A&M (17-14, 8-10) in Thursday’s noon tip-off, they’ll get top-seeded and top-ranked Florida (29-2, 18-0) on Friday in the Georgia Dome.
“We’ll see,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said after his team finished 2-7 in SEC road games for the second straight year. “Anything can happen. We’re going to coach our guys up and get them ready to go compete next week.”
The loss Saturday will go down as one of 31 regular-season games for the Tigers, but the second half was less of a game, more of a Tennessee dunk contest. The Vols scored 30 of their 35 second-half points in the paint, including five uncontested dunks.
The Vols simply played bigger, played tougher and played with the kind of urgency needed to slide off the bubble and into the bracket. Such as when wispy guard Jordan McRae swooped toward Earnest Ross and swatted three of his shots. Or when nose tackle-sized forward Jerrone Maymon flattened Jordan Clarkson with a screen at the foul line then flipped in a layup.
And all of that occurred long after the Vols had grabbed control with a dominant first half. Tennessee took a 37-19 lead into the break, Mizzou’s lowest scoring half since a 45-19 halftime deficit at Kansas on March 1, 2009.
In front of a Tennessee crowd of 18,519, Missouri’s offensive performance became historically bad. The 45 points marked Mizzou’s lowest scoring game since a 45-42 win over DePaul in the 1997 Maui Invitational. The 45 points tied the program’s lowest total since the shot clock was instituted for the 1985-86 season.
The last time Mizzou scored fewer points? Try a 42-41 win over Kansas in 1982 — when Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sundvold were juniors and the college game had yet to adopt the 3-point shot.
Against the Vols, the Tigers shot just 15 of 47 (31.9 percent), their worst shooting game of the season and worst overall since a 2011 loss to Kansas (29.3), Mike Anderson’s final home game as Mizzou’s coach. They made just two of 23 jump shots, with backup point guard Wes Clark hitting the only two, a pair of 3-pointers. Otherwise, the team’s three leading scorers — Brown, Clarkson and Ross — combined to miss all 14 of their jumpers.
Brown, who began the day leading the SEC in scoring at 20.1 points per game, made just one of 10 shots — and didn’t hit his first and only basket until 1:16 was left in the game.
Mizzou’s offense vanished for stretches with scoreless droughts of 4:21 and 5:19 during the first half. Missouri guards dribbled aimlessly and rarely found open teammates, finishing with just five assists to Tennessee’s 18.
“You’ve got to hit shots to get assists,” Brown said.
For most of the game, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin assigned 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson on Brown. The junior guard not only outscored Brown nine to eight, but swarmed the All-SEC candidate like no opponent has done all season.
“This is what I envision defensively,” Martin said. “When you completely buy in and sell yourself to the team, you can defend at a high level.”
Like they do against most opponents, Martin’s Vols dominated the glass and finished with a 45-28 rebounding advantage, including 18 offensive rebounds, the most for a Missouri opponent this season.
“That,” Haith said, “was the difference in the game.”
The Tigers had no answer for junior forward Jarnell Stokes on the boards as the 6-8 junior had 10 rebounds at halftime, twice as many as Mizzou’s five forwards. Stokes added 15 points, to go along with Antonio Barton’s 16 and McRae’s 11.
Backup center Keanau Post was a rare bright spot for the Tigers, finishing with six points and five rebounds. Otherwise, there was nothing for Haith to savor from the box score. In fact, he disagreed with Tennessee’s 15 second-chance points.
“That can’t be right,” he said. “It seems like they had more than that.”
With so much at stake, was Tennessee the more physical team Saturday?
“It looked that way, yeah,” Post said. “They were.”
“It’s embarrassing, you know,” Clarkson added. “We’ve just got to go out in this tournament and forget about all what happened ... and look at it as a new season.”