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Vols' McRae heats up while his teammates struggle

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Vols' McRae heats up while his teammates struggle

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee guard Jordan McRae is on a roll in the Southeastern Conference. So are the Volunteers, just in the other direction.

The Vols have not been able to capitalize on the best stretch of the junior's career.

He has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games, all Tennessee losses. The Volunteers have dropped their first three Southeastern Conference games for the first time since 1997-98.

The Vols (8-7, 0-3 SEC) will try to avoid going 0-4 in conference play for the first time since 1993-94 on Saturday when they host Mississippi State (7-8, 2-1). The losing streak has given McRae no reason to celebrate the best individual stretch of his career.

``I still feel bad that we lost,'' McRae said. ``The points don't cross my mind at all. At the end of the day, I want to win. That's all I'm about, just winning. We haven't done it lately.''

McRae certainly has done his part.

The 6-foot-5 McRae leads the SEC with 23.3 points per game in conference play. McRae has a team-high 13.9 points per game overall this season, although he didn't enter the starting lineup until last week. He's the first Tennessee player to score 20-plus points in four straight games since Chris Lofton in 2008.

``I'm attacking more and being more aggressive than I've ever been in college,'' McRae said.

McRae's surge followed a discussion with Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who told him to start shooting more often. McRae didn't attempt more than 10 shots in any of Tennessee's first 11 games. He has shot 34 of 67 over his last four games.

``I said to him two or three weeks ago, `If you're a scorer, then be that,' `` Martin said. ``I don't know too many scorers who leave games on a consistent basis with six or seven shots. If you're a scorer, get 12-15 shots and get to the free-throw line. It's the same thing I tell Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. Those guys have the ability to score the ball. They have to get shots up.''

The Vols need to give McRae some help.

Tennessee doesn't have anyone else averaging more than 8.3 points per game in conference play. McRae was the only Vol to score in double figures in each of Tennessee's last two games, a 68-65 loss at Alabama and a 75-65 setback at Kentucky.

The Vols were picked before the season to finish fourth in the SEC, but they've run into plenty of roadblocks.

Jeronne Maymon, a second-team all-SEC forward last year, won't play a minute this season because of an injured left knee. Golden, the Vols' leading scorer last season, has fallen out of the starting lineup and hasn't exceeded eight points in any of his last five games.

Stokes, the Vols' best pro prospect, has made more than three baskets in just three of Tennessee's last 10 games. Senior guard Skylar McBee, the team's top outside shooter, has made just 31.6 percent of his 3-point attempts as he plays through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

McRae said he started asserting himself more on offense because he realized that's what the team needed.

``Seeing Trae struggle a little bit and with the news that Jaronne would be out the whole year, I felt that somebody had to step up on the offensive end,'' McRae said.

Tennessee's entire team must step up soon to have any hope of meeting preseason expectations.

The Vols have bounced back from slow starts before. They dropped three of their first four league games last year and ended up tied for second in the SEC with a 10-6 conference record. The last Tennessee team to start 0-3 in SEC play went on to reach the 1998 NCAA tournament.

``There's always a sense of urgency, but I think there's a difference between urgency and panic,'' Martin said. ``For us, it's not panic mode but a sense of urgency to want to get back in stride.''

This game represents a reunion of sorts for Martin and Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, who worked together as Purdue assistants from 2006-08. Mississippi State, which has just seven healthy scholarship players, won its first two conference games before falling 75-43 to Alabama on Wednesday.

``I know Cuonzo Martin, and they're going to compete,'' Ray said. ``We better be ready to get out there and compete. This isn't going to be an X's and O's situation. This is going to be about this: Are you ready to play competitive basketball?''

The Vols must be ready as well.

A loss would give them their worst SEC start in nearly two decades. A victory would back up their confidence that they can rebound from a slow start for a second straight season.

``This can still be turned around,'' McRae said, ``and I think we will.''

---

AP Sports Writer David Brandt of Starkville, Miss., contributed to this report.

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Despite some tears, youth football helped Chris Thompson discover his love for the game

Despite some tears, youth football helped Chris Thompson discover his love for the game

Maybe Chris Thompson was always destined to end up with the Redskins.

When the running first partook in the game of football growing up, the team he played for ended up being the same one he'd enter the NFL with.

“My little league team just so happened to be the Redskins," Thompson told NBC Sports Washington.

From a Pop Warner to the pros, he still carries the memories of his youth football days as they played a major part in molding him into the player he is today. Yet, it wasn't all positives.

For someone as talented an explosive as Thompson, one would probably expect him to have a great amount of success from the start of his football days. But, his first season was quite the opposite.

“My first year, we lost every single game," he said. "So I went home crying every single day. After every single game, because I hated to lose.”

We've all been there. Losing a game as a kid, no matter what the circumstance is, can be heartbreaking. I would be lying if I said I never had a meltdown or two on the little league field when I couldn't find the strike zone.

While going through a season with no wins is probably enough to deter a lot of young kids from a sport, Thompson wasn't ready to give up. He came back for another season, and things quickly turned around.

“The next year, we went undefeated," Thompson said. “I literally got tackled one time the whole season.”

A 180-degree change in the following year, Thompson and his teammates enjoyed a lot more success and fun. The running back said the one tackle came in the championship game, and that he racked up plenty of touchdowns during that campaign.

As a young kid, being able to rebound from a low moment and come out on top is something that Thompson has carried with him throughout his entire career. Battling back from injuries and doubts, he's always been someone who wants to do better every time he steps on the field.

“So it was just kind of, as a young kid, added motivation for me," Thompson said about his youth football experiences.

Though that first season may have not been the most enjoyable experience for a young Thompson, he's forever grateful for his early playing days. Even now being at the highest level of football, he understands the impact it had.

“It’s fun man. I feel like you really start to, you build friendships through sports big time. It’s just those moments back then, even through high school, you won't forget cause it’s just fun," Thompson said. "You’re just having fun, being able to play the game you love and nothing else really matters.”

“I feel like that’s when you really start to love the game of football."

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New week, same tight wild-card race for Nationals

New week, same tight wild-card race for Nationals

The Nationals packed slowly Sunday after blowing out Milwaukee. They were all heading to the same bus at 5:45 p.m., marooned in the clubhouse without an excuse for escape -- family, fatigue or just feeling like it.

Another laborious but fulfilling weekend was over. The team played more than nine hours of baseball in a 22-hour span. Davey Martinez said his feet hurt. The position players stood in the unrelenting sun all Sunday -- except for Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon, recipients of an early departure during the blowout -- before finding relieve in the clubhouse air conditioning.

Next is four games in Pittsburgh and three in Chicago. The Pirates have crashed since the All-Star break. Only Miami has a worse overall record in the National League. Chicago is in the thick of the wild-card and National League Central races. The Cubs hold the second wild-card slot by two games despite being 4-6 in their last 10. They are .001 percentage points behind St. Louis for the division lead. 

Joe Ross starts things Monday for the Nationals. His ERA by month this season: 3.86, 14.85, 36.00, 8.10, 0.50. Things are better, to say the least. Ross has been able to maintain his velocity but also add movement to his two-seam fastball. He pitches up on occasion and deploys his curveball more often. 

Monday will be Ross’ final start before the Nationals have to decide who will remain in the rotation because of Max Scherzer’s “probable” return Thursday. Erick Fedde had a decent outing Sunday. If Ross pitches well again Monday, he seems to have the inside track to the fifth starter spot. That doesn’t mean Fedde is going back to Triple-A Fresno or Double-A Harrisburg. Martinez mentioned he expects the organization to find a way to keep Fedde around, which could mean being the long man in the bullpen.

Stephen Strasburg follows on Tuesday, Patrick Corbin is next, Scherzer is expected to finish the series in Pittsburgh. Which makes Ross’ outing that much more important. If he pitches well and the team wins Monday, they are set up for the remaining three games.

That’s not the case in Chicago. The Nationals will deal with a turnaround that only happens if a team is going to play the Cubs. Following a final night game in Pittsburgh, Washington flies to Chicago for a 1:20 p.m. local start. The Cubs, on the other hand, play a home day game Thursday. This is a byproduct of the city ordinance which limits the number of night games at Wrigley Field. It’s also a part of poor scheduling on the other side by Major League Baseball. 

There’s another scheduling quirk to be cognizant of: Atlanta has played 126 games, Washington 123. That three-game gap will not be closed until the final week of the season when Washington plays eight games in seven days and Atlanta is off twice. So, though, the Nationals are 5 ½ games behind the Braves in the National League East, it’s important to note they are four back in the loss column with three games in hand. The gap is more modest than it may seem.

First, off to Pittsburgh.

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