LSU is a great example of how quickly things can get away from you in the modern college basketball world, with players leaving early and coaches facing a quick trigger finger. The Tigers were in the Final Four in 2006, won the SEC regular season title in 2009, and were 0-7 in SEC play coming into tonight. Six of those seven losses were by nine points or more, and the Tigers feature only three players who average more than five points per game. Simply put, LSU is terrible, and Tennessee should've had no problem.
Perhaps it was too easy, too soon. The Vols jumped out to a 19-8 lead in the first 12 minutes...and then we saw 20 minutes of even basketball. And by even, I mean awful.
As stated, LSU is terrible. And the game tonight didn't end up being close because they played above their heads - the Tigers shot 30.5% from the floor and 5 of 23 (21.7%) from beyond the arc. Their best player, Tasmin Mitchell, did have 13 points and 17 rebounds, but shot only 4 of 12 from the floor. Bo Spencer scored 25 points on 19 shots to help, but that was all the assistance Mitchell would get - the rest of the team shot 6 of 28 from the floor. Tonight's performance was par for the course for LSU.
And after the initial spurt, Tennessee was more than happy to play down to the level of their opponent.
The Vols shot 40% from the floor and 62.5% from the line, and turned the ball over 12 times. This depleted roster needs their best players to play well, and then needs to get contributions from some of the bench guys in order to win. Tonight, some of the Vols' best players were merely okay - Scotty Hopson was average, Cameron Tatum was about the same - and others really struggled. Bobby Maze was in that group, with 5 points, 1 assist and 2 turnovers, and was outplayed by Melvin Goins. Kenny Hall had more fouls (4) and turnovers (3) than points or rebounds (2 each).
And the other guys? Renaldo Woolridge went 0 for 4 from beyond the arc, and is 1 for his last 12 from three after hitting 8 of 15 in the Charlotte, Kansas, and Auburn games. Skylar McBee hit one three, but was otherwise invisible in 17 minutes.
So in the second half, the Vols figured out that they could post up Wayne Chism every possession and get an easy look. As a result, Chism finished with 22 points on 10 of 16 shooting (37% of the team's points), two short of his season high. And because we were playing LSU, 22 from Chism and a slow or off night from everyone else meant we were still up by eleven points, 51-40, with eight minutes to play.
And then it got a little tight.
In the last eight minutes, the Vols made two shots - both inside scores from Chism. Meanwhile, LSU just kept chipping away. They cut the lead to six with 3:37 to play. They cut it to four with 2:29 to play. When they sliced it to a deuce, Chism hit one of his two shots to put the Vols back up 55-51.
But a sleepy Tennessee team was determined to court disaster. And no one flirts with disaster with the bravado of J.P. Prince.
Prince again proved his worth as the most frustrating player on the team. He again filled up the stat sheet: 8 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists. But in the final minute, he yet again found a way to make things interesting: he missed the front end of a one-and-one with the Vols up four with :34 to play. And then thirteen seconds later, you could feel it coming: LSU was going to take a three, and Prince would somehow find a way to make contact with the shooter. And inexplicably, Prince has now fouled a three point shooter in the final minutes of a tight game three times in seven SEC contests. The best play an opposing team can run in the final minutes is to find Prince and shoot a three within ten feet of him.
Was tonight's foul on Prince in that situation a great call? Maybe not. But I don't care. They teach you not to leave your feet on a three point shooter in junior pro. And to, you know, be especially careful not to do so with the game on the line. It's Prince's responsibility to not even give the referee an option. But instead, he put Tasmin Mitchell on the line, and Mitchell hit all three free throws to move the Tigers within one.
Make no mistake: losing this game would've been disastrous. It would've been three losses in four games (and one Alex Tyus bounce away from four straight), and with the schedule coming up next you would've had no idea where the next win was coming from. And above all, this was LSU. Tennessee should've shown up and won by double digits.
But instead, here were the Tigers, down only one with :21 to play. And here was Tennessee, needing to hit free throws to win. The stage was set for a nightmare finish.
But then, Bobby Maze and Scotty Hopson went 4-4 at the line. And just like that, the nightmare was avoided.
SEC road wins are precious, even in Baton Rouge this season. And ultimately in college basketball, there's no such thing as a "bad win". So the Vols will take it, and they'll move to 17-4, 5-2 in the SEC.
But the formula for disaster remains the same. The Vols are going to need more than Wayne Chism to beat every single team left on their schedule. And the Vols can't afford for Prince or anyone to play with such little sense in the final minute. The Vols gave LSU an opportunity tonight, and the Tigers simply weren't good enough to take advantage of it. Tennessee cannot be so kind to anyone else.