The McEachern High School product scored 25 points and sparked an 11-1 run that closed out a 69-60 victory over No. 23 Wichita State on Thursday night, a win that snapped the Volunteers’ two-game losing streak and handed the Shockers their first loss of the season.
“I told the guys it was a must-win before the game,” Golden said. “I knew it was a must-win.”
In its last two games, Tennessee had lost 37-36 to Georgetown in the SEC/Big East Challenge on Nov. 30 and 46-38 at Virginia on Dec. 5. The only other time Tennessee failed to score 40 points since the shot clock was introduced for the 1985-86 season was a 43-35 loss to Auburn on Jan. 15, 1997.
Tennessee (5-3) knew it needed a quality nonconference victory before entering Southeastern Conference competition. Wichita State (9-1) wanted to improve to 10-0 for the first time in school history.
The result was a December game played with March intensity, as players dived on the court and even jumped toward the scorer’s table on at least one occasion while chasing after loose balls.
“I just wanted to make sure we won that game,” Golden said. “We couldn’t afford to go on a three-game losing streak. It was a huge win for us.”
Tennessee broke out of its offensive funk by shooting 47.5 percent from the field and matching the highest point total Wichita State had allowed all season. The Shockers won 72-69 at Air Force on Dec. 2.
The Vols are shooting 50.8 percent in their wins and 29.1 percent in their losses this season.
“This is a quality win against a quality opponent,” said Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, who added 17 points. “That’s a great team. They were undefeated, ranked. That’s one we needed.”
Tennessee won despite playing most of the second half without Jarnell Stokes, the Vols’ leading scorer and rebounder. Stokes had six points and seven rebounds while playing just 18 minutes due to foul trouble.
Hall delivered a three-point play that gave Wichita State a 59-58 lead and caused Stokes to foul out with 3:55 remaining, but the Vols outscored the Shockers 11-1 the rest of the way.
Golden went 6-of-8 from the free-throw line during the game-ending run. He made one of two free throws to tie the game with 3:29 left. Kenny Hall put Tennessee ahead for good by making two free throws with 3:10 remaining.
Throughout the game, Golden drove into the lane and drew contact. The junior guard went 13-of-16 from the foul line after attempting a total of 11 free throws in the five games leading up to this one.
“Trae Golden was huge (Thursday),” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He really attacked the rim, made plays and forced the referee to make calls.”
He was very aggressive. I thought it was his best game all season, just being assertive and being in tune on both ends of the floor. I thought he was outstanding defensively.”
Tennessee got big performances from role players as the Volunteers bench outscored Wichita State’s 31-17.
McRae was 8-of 8-from the foul line and Tennessee was 29-of-36. Wichita State was 12-of-20.
Tennessee reserve Yemi Makanjuola had nine points and eight rebounds to help the Vols overcome Stokes’ foul trouble. Makanjuola, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, didn’t have more than five points or four rebounds in any of Tennessee’s first seven games.
“He’s been playing really well defensively,” Martin said. “(On Thursday), he made some baskets for us. We’ve spent a lot of time with him offensively (on) being aggressive, being assertive, looking to score the ball. I thought he did a great job.”
The Vols led 30-28 at halftime before Wichita State pulled back ahead as Carl Hall scored eight points in the first 5 minutes of the second half.
Tennessee honored former coach Ray Mears, who went 278-112 from 1962-77 and remains the winningest coach in the history of the program. Mears’ surviving relatives were given a painting of him in a halftime ceremony that featured many of his former players.
The Vols came out for pregame drills in warmup suits with orange and white vertical stripes, a relic from the Mears era.