Strong Second Half Lifts LSU Past Tennessee, 78-64

Bayou Backcourt of Smart, Mays Combines for 38 Points, 8 Assists

by Kent Lowe | Sr. Associate Sports Communications Director
Inside LSU Basketball - Episode 3 Highlights Will Wade Postgame +0
Strong Second Half Lifts LSU Past Tennessee, 78-64

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee – The LSU men’s basketball team opened Southeastern Conference play with an impressive 78-64 win over Tennessee Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena. 

The win upped the Tigers to 9-4 and 1-0 in the SEC and more importantly, gave the Tigers a 10-game road winning streak in league play dating back to last year when LSU was a perfect 9-0 on the road. 

The 10-game road winning streak equals the third longest SEC road winning streak in school history. 

LSU now comes back to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for home games this coming Wednesday and next Saturday.

LSU withstood a shooting barrage at the beginning of the game which led to nine first-half threes by the Volunteers, rallied from nine down to take a one-point lead at the half, then shot 57 percent in the second half to pull away to as much as a 16-point advantage. 

The Tigers’ Bayou Backcourt of Baton Rouge natives Javonte Smart and Skylar Mays led LSU with a combined 38 points and eight assists. Smart, who scored 29 points last year at home against Tennessee, again had another good game against the Vols. 

The sophomore scored 21 points as he hit 7-of-13 field goal attempts and 5-of-9 from the arc. 

Senior Mays hit for 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting, hitting both three-point attempts. 

Trendon Watford had nine second points to finish with 15 points and eight rebounds on 5-of-10 shooting and 5-of-6 from the line.

LSU for the game shot 28-of-60 from the field (46.7 percent) and 10-of-21 from the arc (47.6 percent). LSU was 15-of-26 overall and 4-of-8 from the arc in the second half. LSU was 12-of-14 from the free throw line. 

Yves Pons and transfer Santiago Vercovi, who was just cleared by the NCAA to play on Friday, led Tennessee (8-5, 0-1) with 18 points each. Josiah-Jordan James added 15 points. Tennessee made nine three-pointers in the first half, finished 13-of-26 from the arc and 24-of-60 for the game (40.0 percent). Tennessee was 3-of-5 from the line. 

Tennessee outrebounded LSU, 34=33 for the game, but second chance points were even at 10-10. Darius Days of LSU led all players with 11 boards, six offensive in the contest. 

LSU had a 32-18 advantage in points in the paint and took advantage of 14 Tennessee turnovers for a 19-9 advantage in points off turnovers. For the second straight game, the Tigers were under 10 turnovers with eight for the game. 

Tennessee would jump out to 15-7 and 20-11 leads in the first seven minutes before the Tigers began to get things stabilized and cut into the margin. 

The game swung in the final two minutes of the first half after Tennessee took a 37-31 lead. Mays was able to drive the lane for a dunk to make it 37-33. After a Tennessee turnover, Smart was fouled and made two free throws to make it 37-35 with 48 seconds to go. 

The Vols missed a three-point shot on the other end and LSU got the rebound and on its ensuing possession, Smart nailed a three with 14 seconds left to give LSU the lead at intermission, 38-37.

Tennessee took its final lead on the opening possession of the second half on a Pons jump shot to go up 39-38, but LSU answered right back on a Trendon Watford bucket in the paint. That would give LSU the lead for good at 40-39. Tennessee missed a three, Mays countered with a bucket on the other end to give LSU a three-point advantage at 42-39. 

LSU would push the lead to eight at 51-43 on a Days paint bucket with 14:10 to play and the lead reached double digits for the first time at 59-49 two minutes later on a Smart jumper. Tennessee was never closer than seven points the rest of the way. 

LSU will face Arkansas on Wednesday night at the Maravich Center at 8 p.m. on ESPNU and the LSU Sports Radio Network. Tickets for the game will be available during normal business hours through Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the LSU Athletics Ticket Office and online at The Tigers also host Mississippi State next Saturday (Jan. 11) at 7 p.m.

LSU Head Coach Will Wade
Opening Statement:

“I thought it was obviously a good win for us. We withstood Tennessee in the first half. I thought we took their best punch for them to shoot it so well from the three. I’m not going to try to pronounce 25’s name, but he’s going to be a very, very good player. Obviously, he’s a tremendous shooter. As he adjusts to the speed and pace of the game, he will continue to get better. I thought our guards did a great job. I thought Javonte (Smart) played really well. Javonte must like playing Tennessee because his two best games were against Tennessee last year and obviously here today. We made some big plays and were able to withstand the run, and things kind of evened out a little bit in the second half and we were able to pull away. (It was) a good road win for us and a good way to get conference season started.”

On if he was surprised Tennessee player Santiago Vescovi played after being cleared:
“No. I thought he was going to play about 20, 22 minutes. I watched that highlight video they put out on him earlier this week from practice, and then we started pulling some film from international play because I kind of figured they were going to roll with him. We wanted to see if he could make shots. I thought Marlon (Taylor) did a really good job getting his athleticism in the game, and I think that bothered him a little bit with the nine turnovers.”

On the defense and what they changed in the second half:
“We didn’t do a whole lot. We started switching a little bit more, but typically three-point shooting evens out numbers-wise throughout the game. They were shooting it so much better than their averages. They shot five threes off the bounce all year coming into the game. They probably hit three or four in the first half off the bounce, but that stuff tends to even itself out. We switched a little bit more because Pons was just popping the whole time, so we could come out and guard him with a perimeter guy. He wasn’t posting as much. It was really just numbers evening out more than anything.”

On what allowed LSU to withstand Tennessee’s high-shooting percentages:
“I thought we played well on offense. Obviously, Javonte made some shots. I think early in the game, the offensive glass really helped us. Most of our work and damage on the offensive glass was done early in the game, and I think that really kept us centered.”

On the difficulties of preparing to play a new player with minimal footage:
“It was a little bit different. We were trying to explain to our guys. The one thing is, they have a great system. Coach Barnes has a great system. He’s running this same system they had last year. It’s just a little bit different, slower is not the word, just not having as much freedom I would say. Schofield and those guys kind of break off. I told our guys that I thought we did a good job with this. I said, ‘If we make a mistake defensively, make sure we don’t let it in the paint and we don’t give (Jordan) Bowden a clean look. Any other mistake defensively we can live with, but don’t let the ball easily in the paint, and don’t give Bowden a clean three. Anything else we will figure out.'”

On the low scoring first half for Emmitt Williams and Darius Days and how fortunate he felt to have a lead:
“I felt great at halftime. I felt very, very good at halftime. I was just worried about them. I knew they were going to pin their ears back on the glass, and we withstood that just enough.”

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes:

On how Santiago Vescovi played in his first college game:
“Last night, talking to the coaches, or if you actually want to go back in my mind, I started thinking about it the first day he got here, because I was really taken by what he knew about our offense. I was totally surprised. We obviously wanted to put in some things he was familiar with and he’s used in the past, and we did. We used some of that today. But as time went on in practice, our mindset… we knew after a few days it was inevitable he was going to be a starter. So, we said, ‘Why not do it now?’ He shot the ball well. His turnovers hurt, and he knows it. A lot of that had to do with fatigue. That was probably my fault, leaving him out there too long because he looked tired. But the best part about that was that I thought Josiah James was really locked in today. The coaches told me when they walked out of the locker room (a few minutes ago), Josiah was saying (to Santiago), ‘Hey, you’re going to be all right. If you get tired and need help at the point, I’ll do it.’ When your young guys start talking like that, you feel good. I thought Josiah was really locked in today, and Jalen was locked in. In the first half, there were a lot of really good things. In the second half, again (Santiago) got tired, and those 19 points off turnovers against a team like that, or any team, you just don’t want to give them to them—too many easy ones. For us to go where we want to go, we need Olivier (Nkamhoua), and he got two really tough calls today that put him on the bench. They were tough calls, but we’re going to need Fulky and Yves (Pons). And we need Jordan Bowden. We need those guys to be stellar every night. We need those guys, because today the demeanor with our young guys was terrific, and Santiago earned the respect of his teammates the very first day he came out there.”

On if he plans to be more patient than he’d prefer to be while Vescovi adjusts to college basketball:
“Some of his turnovers today… I know (LSU was) experienced. Again, the thing I was worried about most of all was traveling. We’ve watched him in practice, and we said, ‘Now look, they may not call this in European basketball, but this is going to be called a travel.’ The (travel) they called over on the other end in the second half was a travel, so he’s worked hard to understand that he can’t split his feet. He is good in ball screens, there’s no doubt about that. But, he got tired. He got tired. But to answer your question, he’s going to make some mistakes and we’re going to live with, it because he’s trying to start the season in the middle of the season and his first game was a conference game. There’s no doubt that everybody saw that he’s got a chance to be a terrific player, and he’s a guy who wants to distribute the ball. He’ll learn. He’ll watch tape. If he’s anything like how he was watching tape to learn our offense as he is after a game and learning from (watching that game), then he’s going to be a good basketball player. He really is. We need everybody. We need that. He fouled with eight seconds left on the shot clock at a critical time, and then we gave up an offensive rebound right after that. Those are the plays when you’re dealing with a lot of young players playing critical minutes for you, it’s them understanding that every possession counts. And that’s what these guys will continue to learn. We feel like in some ways we’ve had to start over so many different times this year, but I really like these guys. I appreciate our fans more than ever because we’re going to need them, particularly when you’ve got a young group of guys, and (the fans) were terrific today, we need them to stay with us, which I fully expect them to do because this group of guys… we’re going to watch them grow up just like the guys who left a year ago.”

On the efficiency of LSU guard Javonte Smart
“First of all, they’re what, second in the nation in scoring inside the 3-point line? That’s what they want to do. They want to get inside the 3-point line, so you go in obviously doing that. Where they do usually shoot their threes are off drives and kicks back out, but he had a good game. He had it going, and they made 10 [3-pointers] today. They averaged five or six or somewhere in there, but again, the 3-point shot, that’s not what beat us today. It really wasn’t. It was the turnovers and the easy baskets we gave them. And they’ve got good talent from young players, too. They can go get a bucket on the run. But we had a couple of breakdowns on the offensive end at the wrong time. There’s nothing we did today that we can’t clean up.” 

On Jordan Bowden’s recent struggles:

“That’s a great question. He was terrific in practice yesterday. He was terrific. You have to believe that when you’ve been in the game for a long time, you know that players go through these type of slumps. And again, we’re not asking him to do anything that he hasn’t done in the past. We’re not. Today, he shouldn’t have shot a couple of shots that he took. I know he got frustrated. Like we all, when he shoots, he thinks it’s going to go in. He’s proven that to us. But we just have to work through it. I wish I had some magic dust I could sprinkle, but we don’t.” 

On his outlook for the rest of the season:

“I still think we have a chance to be a good basketball team. But we don’t have a lot for room for error. One thing we cannot do is continue to give up 19-20 points a game off of turnovers. We can’t do that. We’re going to have to make people work and score against us. We can’t just give up easy baskets where we get the ball deflected or we’re too loose with the ball, those type of things. We do need to get fouled more. We need guys to do that, but defensively we need to learn to play every possession all game long. When things aren’t going well on the offensive end, we can’t let that affect us on that end of the court.”