Michigan State men’s basketball came up just short in its first challenge of the year against Tennessee on Sunday, losing by one in a game with no shortage of drama.
MSU started out flat and put itself in a sizable hole before mounting a comeback to tie the game with a three-pointer with five seconds left. However, a foul against the Spartans on the sidelines put the Volunteers at the free-throw line with 1.9 seconds.
Though Tennessee junior guard and USC Upsate transfer Jordan Gainey missed the first, he drilled the second to seal the 89-88 victory for the Volunteers.
Defending the perimeter and missed free throws were the root of MSU’s problems Sunday. The Volunteers shot 52 percent from behind the arc, while the Spartans left 10 points at the charity stripe.
Tennessee transfer fifth-year senior guard Dalton Knecht and Gainey were the catalysts, knocking down outside shots early and staying aggressive throughout the game. The two combined for 48 points on seven made three-pointers.
MSU was led by graduate student guard Tyson Walker, who scored 22 points and added four assists in 33 minutes. The only other Spartans in double figures were graduate student forward Malik Hall (14) and junior guard Jaden Akins (12).
Sunday’s public charity exhibition was in place of the teams’ scheduled closed-door scrimmage. All proceeds from the game will be donated to the Hawai’i Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund, providing financial support for relief efforts from the Maui wildfires.
MSU, who is scheduled to participate in the 2024 Maui Invitational, donned “Maui Strong” warmup shirts along with the Volunteers.
After a horrible start in which the Spartans trailed by as much as 18 in the first half, MSU cut it to just three entering the locker room.
Tennessee jumped out to a 9-0 lead off four Spartan turnovers in the first three minutes, prompting an early timeout from head coach Tom Izzo. Taking care of the ball continues to be a point of emphasis for MSU.
With the way the Volunteers came out on cylinders, it wasn’t easy to tell that Tennessee was missing fifth-year senior guard Santiago Vescovi – its best shooter and leading scorer last year.
Things continued to get better for the Volunteers – Gainey drained two threes in the span of 20 seconds to give Tennessee a whopping 15-1 advantage.
MSU sophomore center Carson Cooper was the first Spartan off the bench, relieving senior center Mady Sissoko. Cooper provided some life with a jump hook on the right block and getting to the line, but the Spartans still trailed by 13 at the 12-minute mark of the first half.
Freshman forward Xavier Booker, MSU’s most highly-touted recruit, caught his first action over 12 minutes into the game. Both fellow freshmen Jeremy Fears Jr. and Coen Carr saw the floor before Booker. Still, the 6’11 stretch forward nailed his first shot, a three, from the top of the arc.
After the Volunteers extended their lead to 18 with another Gainey three, MSU senior guard A.J. Hoggard came up with a much-needed steal and finish, plus a foul. From there, MSU began to tighten the screws on both ends.
The Breslin came to life in the final five minutes of the first half, thanks to a 9-2 MSU run that featured two Hall turnaround jumpers – his bread-and-butter move – and a thunderous dunk by Carr in transition.
To be down 40-37 at the half was about as much as MSU could’ve asked for following its ugly start.
Tennessee retook momentum out of the halftime break, knocking down a three and converting on a pair of fast break opportunities. In just five minutes, a three-point Volunteer lead became 11.
Carr made his presence felt moments later, converting an alley-oop from Walker and sending back a driving layup attempt on the other end and cleaning up Walker's miss at the rim. The crowd, along with Izzo, approved of Carr’s energy and hustle.
Tennessee remained in control of the scoreboard for the next 10 minutes until Walker took matters into his own hands, embarking on a 7-0 run by himself to cut the MSU deficit to just one with 3:56 to play.
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In crunch time, the Volunteers prevailed, coming away with multiple stops on the Spartans and capitalizing at the free-throw line. Still, MSU had one last gasp in the end, coming away with a steal and converting from downtown to tie the game with five seconds left.
But, Holloman was whistled for a foul with 1.9 seconds left, giving the Volunteers two free throws for the game. Gainey made one out of two and clinched the win for Tennessee.
Ultimately, the Spartans’ first-half deficiencies hurt them in the 89-88 defeat, but the near-comeback bid displayed promise.
The Spartans have a week without games before tipping off its regular season at home versus James Madison University on Monday, Nov. 6 at 8:30 p.m.
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