KNOXVILLE — Tennessee figured out a solution for its season-long struggles in close games.
Blow everyone out.
Antonio Barton scored 16 points and Jarnell Stokes had a double-double Saturday as Tennessee trounced Missouri 72-45 to win its fourth straight game and boost its NCAA tournament hopes.
Tennessee (20-11, 11-7 SEC) hasn’t trailed at any point during its winning streak. Its last three victories have been decided by a total of 93 points, marking the first time since 1965 that the Volunteers have won three consecutive SEC games by that large a combined margin.
“It’s showing what we’re capable of,” Barton said. “We had our ups and downs earlier in the season, but we’re capitalizing now.”
Tennessee hasn’t locked up an NCAA bid yet because of its inability to win close games. The Volunteers are 3-10 in games with single-digit margins and 0-5 in games decided by five points or fewer.
The Vols finally won a close game Feb. 26 with a 75-68 victory at Mississippi State that began their current streak. Since then, Tennessee has been punishing opponents.
Tennessee had won 76-38 at home over Vanderbilt and 82-54 at Auburn before Saturday’s rout.
Both Tennessee and Missouri (21-10, 9-9) were perceived to be on the NCAA tournament bubble, raising the stakes in this regular-season finale for both teams. The Vols hope their surge has sent a message to the selection committee, but they’re not looking that far ahead.
By winning Saturday, Tennessee clinched the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament that starts Wednesday in Atlanta. Tennessee hasn’t advanced beyond the SEC quarterfinals the last three years.
“I definitely feel like we’re one of those teams that can go in the tournament and do damage,” said Stokes, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds. “But we have the SEC tournament to play. I want this year to be different for us. Go to the SEC tournament, do some damage and play like we’re capable of playing.”
Tennessee had lost 75-70 at Missouri on Feb. 15, but Saturday’s rematch bore no resemblance to that game.
Missouri’s Jabari Brown, who entered the day leading the SEC with 20.1 points per game, shot 1 of 10 and was held to eight points. Brown scored 24 points against Tennessee last month.
The Tigers shot 56.5 percent in their first game with Tennessee. Missouri shot 32 percent (15 of 47) overall and was 2 of 17 from 3-point range Saturday while recording its lowest point total of the season. Tennessee’s last three opponents have shot 30.7 percent (46 of 150) and have averaged 45.7 points.
“The last 3 1/2 games, we’ve been playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, really defending,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “This is what I envision defensively. When you completely buy in and sell yourself to the team, you can defend at a high level.”
Barton missed all seven of his field-goal attempts and scored two points against Missouri on Feb.15. He continued his recent hot streak Saturday by shooting 4 of 7 from 3-point range. Over his last three games, Barton has gone 13 of 22 on 3-pointers.
“He’s playing at a level so much better than he was before,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “They’re still the same team otherwise in terms of what they do ... but I think Antonio Barton was the difference. We didn’t play well, but they played good. Antonio Barton is light years above where he was.”
Jordan Clarkson led Missouri with 13 points.
Tennessee took control of this game early by dominating Missouri on the boards and from behind the arc.
Stokes nearly outrebounded Missouri by himself in the first half, when he got all 10 of his boards. Tennessee outrebounded Missouri 23-12 in the first half and 45-28 overall.
“My goal was to get 20 coming into the game,” Stokes said. “I felt like this was a game I could go out and dominate on the glass. The second half, I don’t think I got any rebounds, but I feel like Missouri sort of let up on the glass in the second half, and as a result, it was almost as if I was competing with my teammates for rebounds.”
Tennessee also outscored Missouri 18-3 from 3-point range in the first half.
Missouri briefly threatened when Tennessee star guard Jordan McRae picked up his third foul on a Ryan Rosburg three-point play that cut the Vols’ lead to 39-25 with 17:25 remaining. Tennessee responded with a 10-0 run to put the game away.