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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Volunteers finally are playing the way they hoped to perform all season.
But the surge came so late that the Vols still have little to no margin for error in their pursuit of an NCAA tournament berth. Tennessee (19-15, 10-7 SEC) carries a three-game winning streak into its regular-season finale Saturday against Missouri (21-9, 9-8) in a matchup of two teams on the NCAA bubble.
In the only previous meeting between the two, Tennessee lost 75-70 at Missouri on Feb. 15.
"I can feel the energy right now and there's nobody in the arena right now," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday as he stood on the Thompson-Boling Arena floor before practice. "I think it will be a tremendous atmosphere against a very talented team."
Saturday marks the final home game for Tennessee seniors Antonio Barton, D'Montre Edwards, Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon unless the Vols host an NIT game for a third consecutive season. Tennessee is hoping to avoid that postseason scenario.
The Vols talked boldly before the season about playing well enough to assure they wouldn't have to feel nervous the day the tournament pairings are announced. Tennessee returned three of its top four scorers from a team that went 20-13.
The Vols haven't sealed an NCAA bid yet because of their inconsistency. But they've been on a roll lately.
Tennessee started its current streak with a 75-68 victory at Mississippi State and then won its last two games by a combined 66 points — a 76-38 home blowout of Vanderbilt and an 82-54 victory at Auburn. This marks the first time since 1965 that Tennessee has won consecutive SEC games by that much.
The Vols have never trailed in any of their last three games. Tennessee has allowed an average of just 54.6 points over its last five.
"We're not walking around saying these are must-win games," McRae said. "We're just telling everybody to just play as hard as we can. If we play as hard as we can and play our games, we feel we can beat anybody."
While Tennessee has been blowing out teams lately, Missouri has kept its NCAA hopes alive by winning close games. Four of Missouri's last five wins have been decided by a total of 10 points, including that 75-70 victory over Tennessee last month. Missouri's only rout during that stretch was an 85-66 trouncing of Mississippi State on March 1.
Missouri's effectiveness in tight situations could be a problem for Tennessee, which has gone 3-10 in single-digit games and 0-5 in games decided by five points or fewer. In its last outing, Missouri erased an 11-point deficit Wednesday and escaped with a 57-56 victory over Texas A&M.
"This game was like going to the dentist," Missouri coach Frank Haith said afterward.
Saturday's game could prove even more painful for the loser.