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Tennessee 78 LSU 63 Wait What

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The Vols blew open a close game in the second half with a stunning performance in Baton Rouge, damaging the Tigers' tournament hopes while restoring some of the narrative about Tennessee's season.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I didn't see any of the first half, but I'm probably not alone in saying I was pleasantly surprised to find us tied 33-33 at the break.  It was a nice confidence boost in Donnie Tyndall and his staff, getting a team with few postseason opportunities and a heavy losing streak to battle on the road against a much more talented and potentially tourney-bound LSU team.  The Tigers crushed UT's hopes of victory in Knoxville in minutes a few weeks ago, so it was nice to see Tennessee punch back and compete in the first 20 minutes.

The Vols and Tigers stayed close for the first six minutes of the second half, with UT holding a 45-42 lead at the 14 minute mark.  And then, out of nowhere, one of Tennessee's best stretches of basketball all season appeared.

Devon Baulkman hit a three.  Armani Moore blocked a shot then cleaned up with a layup on the other end.  Josh Richardson got a steal and a score.  Keith Hornsby scored for LSU, but Moore answered immediately.  At the under 12, the Vols were suddenly up ten.  Then out of the media timeout, Robert Hubbs immediately hit a three.  That made five straight possessions with a made basket for the Vols.

And we weren't done.  The teams traded missed threes, then Kevin Punter blocked a shot, LSU still got the rebound, but Josh Richardson got a steal and a score.  LSU called timeout, missed a three, and Punter splashed a three on the other end, missing a free throw that would've made it a four point play.  By the way, at this point the Vols hadn't made a free throw the entire game, and led 62-44.  When Hornsby made another three for one last shot of hope Tariq Owens - yes, that Tariq Owens - dunked on Jordan Mickey, the SEC's leading shot blocker.

In the last two games we've lamented Tennessee's inability to stop anything Vanderbilt or Florida wanted to do in stretches.  Tonight, on the road at a potential NCAA Tournament team, over five and a half minutes the Vols hit eight of nine shots and outscored LSU 19-5.  Six different Tennessee players made a shot in that run.

The end result is a surprising, satisfying, and soothing 78-63 win in Baton Rouge that gets the Vols back above .500 at 15-14.  At 7-10 in SEC play Tennessee moves back into a tie with Alabama for 9th, with 7-9 Vanderbilt hosting Mississippi State as I type.  The Vols could have always played their way out of Wednesday in the SEC Tournament in the season finale against South Carolina this weekend, but now Tennessee looks to be in very good shape avoiding the play-in games.

The Vols did this tonight with their defense, creating nine steals and holding LSU to 40.4% from the floor and 33.3% from the arc.  But the bigger difference came on the offensive end, as UT shot 52.4%, nearly 70% in the second half.  To no surprise, this is the first time the Vols shot better than 50% (or better than 47.5% to be exact) since the win at South Carolina on January 20, the last win before what was a 2-9 stretch.  Josh Richardson had 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals.  Armani Moore had 19 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals.  Robert Hubbs had 12 and Kevin Punter 10.  Derek Reese had nine rebounds off the bench.  And this was something brand new from Tariq Owens, playing with authority beyond his body weight to finish with six points, three rebounds, and a block in 15 minutes.

Tennessee can ensure a .500 or better season and a ticket to Thursday in the SEC Tournament if they can beat South Carolina on Saturday in Knoxville.  I still think the Vols are going to need at least one win in Nashville to get back in the NIT conversation, where they will almost certainly face Alabama, Florida, or Vanderbilt in the first round and would still see Kentucky on Friday if they finish 8th or 9th.  But this win, if paired with one Saturday, allows you to feel much better about this season again.  And after all the work they'd put in over the course of the year, even during the 2-9 slide, this team deserved it.

Go Vols.