Last year Donnie Tyndall's Vols were riding a five game losing streak in February. They went to Baton Rouge and won by 15. Today Rick Barnes' Vols came in 12-14 (5-8), and just before tip-off we learned Kevin Punter would not play due to an ankle issue. Punter, you'll recall, is having the best scoring season in Knoxville since Allan Houston and putting in close to 30% of Tennessee's points. LSU has Ben Simmons, the presumptive number one pick in June's NBA Draft, and plenty of talent around him.
And Tennessee won by 16.
There are all kinds of words that could fill this space about what LSU does and doesn't do with its talent. Simmons eventually found his way to 21 points and 9 rebounds, but much of his assertiveness came after the game was out of reach. The Vols, to their credit, frustrated him with smaller defenders and forced eight turnovers from the big fella. But LSU simply didn't put the game in his hands early or often, and with the team as a whole shooting just 40% and 33% from the arc, they weren't good enough to make up the difference.
And when you're the worst defensive team in the league coming in, you can get burned by a Tennessee team without its best scorer.
So sure, some of this was about what LSU didn't do. But what the Vols did without Punter deserves the majority of the word count.
Here's Armani Moore's stat line: 17 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks, 1 turnover.
We've mentioned how Moore is at his best against Kentucky's bigger bodies. Today it didn't matter who LSU threw at him, Moore was the facilitator of Tennessee's entire offense without Punter. His seven assists easily led the team and helped an extremely balanced attack take shape, with five other Vols getting 8+ points. I'm not about to suggest Tennessee is better in any way without Punter, but getting that kind of contribution from this many players is noteworthy.
Robert Hubbs led the Vols in scoring with 19 on 8 of 13 shooting, bouncing back after a tough few opening minutes against LSU's size. Shembari Phillips was Armani-lite with 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Detrick Mostella and a healthy-enough Devon Baulkman added four threes and 19 points between them, and Admiral Schofield knocked down three shots and scored eight points. And Rick Barnes praised Derek Reese in the postgame, who blocked a pair of shots and grabbed five rebounds while taking his turn on Simmons duty.
Tennessee shot 34% in the first half but finished the game a shot away from 50%, scoring 50 points in the second half. At Kentucky 48 hours ago the Vols got buried in two minutes to open the second half, going from down six to down 18 before the first media timeout. Today the Vols went from up six to up 12 with a Robert Hubbs and-one at the first media timeout of the second half. The Vols would lead by double digits the rest of the way home. When the Tigers went to zone or press, Tennessee carved it up. The Vols were also especially good in inbounds plays, getting a number of easy buckets there.
The Vols improve to 5-2 in Knoxville in league play and 12-2 overall, the only blemishes a giveaway against Texas A&M and the loss to Vanderbilt. Tennessee has now beaten four of the league's top six teams in Knoxville with wins over Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, and LSU. Tennessee also matched Mississippi State's win today, staying a game ahead of the Bulldogs (plus the tiebreaker) in an effort to stay away from Wednesday in the SEC Tournament.
This was another big win for Rick Barnes and a positive note late in the season. Tennessee also drew its biggest home crowd of the season at nearly 20,000 today, a few hundred more than the Kentucky game on a Tuesday night three weeks ago. This is an incredibly good sign for this team and this program going forward. Tennessee is at South Carolina Wednesday night, still looking for its second road win and first winning streak of SEC play. But we'll rightfully celebrate what this team did against a far more talented opponent without its best player today. The Vols are still fighting down the stretch, and today proved that fight can still be more than enough.