As it turned out, it would be the Tigers who start off on the right foot. Javonte Smart led a potent Tiger attack with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting - including 5-of-8 from 3 - and four assists as LSU pretty much did whatever it wanted on offense in the win.
Santiago Vescovi, who was just granted eligibility last Friday, received the first start of his Tennessee career and led the team with six rebounds while also tying for the team lead with 18 points. All 18 points came from the perimeter where Vescovi finished with a 6-of-9 mark on the day. Yves Pons chipped in 18 points of his own on 7-of-12 shooting from the floor.
Pons got the game started off with a quick bucket to give the Vols a 2-0 lead, but Javonte Smart responded with a subsequent 3 on the next possession to give put the Tigers ahead 3-2. Both teams went back and forth on the next couple of possessions, but two back-to-back 3s from Vescovi put Tennessee ahead, 10-7 in the first 4:00 of the game.
A sick alley-oop from Jordan Bowden to John Fulkerson put the Vols on an 8-0 run with 15:56 left in the first half. Another 3, this time from Josiah-Jordan James, increased the run to 11-0 as the Vols led, 15-7 with 14:43 left in the first half.
LSU point guard Trendon Watford ended the run with a quick jumper on the next possession, but turnovers and miscommunications prevented the Tigers from building any momentum on their side of the ball.
Tennessee, on the other hand, looked fluid and in-control on offense. The Vols were distributing the ball, taking good shots, and playing efficiently.
That dissipated quickly, however, as a 7-0 run and an 11-5 overall run over 5:00 of play cut Tennessee’s lead to 20-18. It was a reversal of fortune/execution for both teams, as they mirrored each other’s good play and bad play from the earlier moments in the game over the course of the run.
LSU continued to hang around to the tune of a 23-21 score, but Pons drained a trey to put the Vols back up, 26-21 with 7:34 left in the first half. The Vols offense was in an obvious slump. After starting the game 8-of-10 from the floor, they were 2-for-9 over their last 11 shots.
3-point shooting continued to carry both teams. A potentially crucial moment came with about 3:16 in the first half, however, as the refs missed a call that would’ve given LSU guard Skyler Mays his third personal foul of the game. Mays collided with Vescovi on a screen, but Vescovi was called with the improper block, when it was clear that Mays initiated contact.
The call caused Mays to hit both free throws and cut the score to 32-31, but Vescovi was able to get a little bit of revenge on the next possession as he drilled his third 3-pointer of the game to push the Vols lead to 35-31. Tennessee’s last six made shots were all 3s. The perimeter game was working, but the Vols would have to find a way to make things work inside if they were going to win this game.
This became painfully clear as Smart drilled another 3 to give the Tigers their first lead since they were up 7-4 in the early minutes of the game. The Tigers now led, 38-37 with about :13 seconds left in the half. The Vols couldn’t get anything done on the offensive side to close out the half and would head into the locker room trailing by one point.
Tennessee shot 69% from 3, but was at 45% from the floor as a whole in the first half. The Vols were 9-of-14 from outside, but just 5-of-18 inside the 3-point line. LSU wasn’t much better as the shot 6-of-13 from (47%) from 3 and 7-of-21 (33%) from inside. Six made free throws by the Tigers - who were able to get to the charity stripe because they actually had a slight inside-game - were the difference at the half.
If you know basketball, then you know - and the Vols, as well - that a 69% clip from 3 isn’t sustainable. Tennessee was going to have to establish an inside presence or this game was going to end poorly for them.
Pons came right out and made a quick jumper to give the Vols a 39-38 lead, which was exactly what they needed to start the second half. LSU began to establish its inside game, however, and pulled out to a 44-41 lead with 17:00 in the game.
The Tigers continued to pull away, at one point reaching a 51-43 lead, but a Pons 3 pulled the Vols within two possessions of the Tigers’ lead. Smart tried to dampen the Vols’ hopes with a trey of his own on the next possession, but Vescovi responded with one of his own right after. The trey-fest continued as Darius Days then made a 3 - making it four consecutively combined possessions with a 3 - of his own to put the Tigers up 57-49 with 12:55 to go.
Tennessee FINALLY got to the charity stripe after Pons was fouled while attempting to drive to the rim. He made 1 of 2 shots and was able to cut the Tigers’ double-digit lead down to single digits. Jalen Johnson tipped in a shot on the next possession and Pons blocked a Mays dunk to cut the lead to 59-52 and give the Vols a shot at getting even closer to tying the game and/or taking the lead back with 9:33 left in the game.
The Vols continued to play hard and tough, but it wasn’t enough as LSU continued to keep them at arms’ length. The Tigers would go on to win, as they begin SEC play with a 1-0 record.
Tennessee travels to CoMo to take on Cuonzo Martin and the Missouri Tigers for the next game. Tipoff is set for Tuesday, January 7 at 7PM EST.