Tennessee went into Baton Rouge riding high off of its back-to-back wins against Georgia and Kentucky. However, Tennessee’s inability to consistently create offense once again arose and couldn’t match LSU and its potent offense, which resulted in a 78-65 loss for the Vols.
Baton Rouge has been a house of horrors for Tennessee as of late and today was no different.
Yves Pons made his return to the Tennessee lineup today after missing Wednesday’s game against Georgia due to a knee injury.
Rick Barnes immediately reintroduced Pons to the starting lineup at center, in the small ball starting five. Pons was surrounded on the court by Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and Josiah Jordan James.
Since their emergence at the end of the Kentucky game, Tennessee’s offense has run through Johnson and Springer, today’s approach to victory was no different.
One of the freshmen once again led Tennessee in scoring for a third consecutive game.
Springer had nine points, five rebounds and five assists in the first half. He also went four-for-four from the free-throw line.
Johnson had eight points and two rebounds. He went two-for-four from behind the three-point line but went just three of nine from the field.
“Our young guys are still learning, but we need help from others, ” Barnes said. “We can't rely on Keon and Jaden.”
Those two were Tennessee’s offensive success in the first half as it only shot 29% from the field as a team and just 30% from behind the three-point line. Tennessee had a stretch of over eight minutes that it didn’t make a field goal.
Long periods without field goals have become a staple of Tennessee and its offense when it plays inconsistently and today was a textbook example.
“Our inconsistency is coming from our older players and that's disappointing, ” Barnes said.
In comparison, LSU was able to shoot 44% from the field and 33% from three in the first half.
Javonte Smart was able to get going early for the Tigers as he scored 11 first-half points and grabbed two rebounds in 17 minutes of play.
Cameron Thomas, who is one of the best freshman scorers in the nation, was also able to create points early. He only made one three-pointer but was able to get to the line and make four free throws along with grabbing two rebounds and dishing out three assists.
Tennessee didn’t wasn’t able to drain wide-open shots which killed any momentum while they tried to cut into the Tigers lead.
LSU carried a 31-26 lead into halftime after Tennessee was able to shrink the gap slightly before the half. Nothing went right for Tennessee in the first half and should’ve counted itself luck to only be down five points at the half, on the road when it shot so poorly as a team.
If the first half was bad, the second half was worse for Tennessee.
Jaden Springer was able to continue his production with 12 second-half points, finishing with 21 points along with six rebounds and seven assists. Springer has cemented himself as the catalyst that ignites Tennessee over the last few games.
James and Vescovi were also able to create some offense in the second half as James had nine points while Vescovi was able to score 10 points while grabbing two rebounds and dishing out two assists.
Once again though Tennessee couldn’t create offense at a consistent rate. Tennessee shot just 41% from the field in the second half and an abysmal 28% from the three-point line along with just 69% from the free-throw line.
“We’ve said all season our goal is to win a national championship, ” James said. “That’s still our goal. We want to win a national championship. But you need consistency to do that, and it’s time to stop talking about it and start doing it.”
LSU was able to make Tennessee pay with its offense in the second half, the Tigers shot 59% from the field while going 12 for 12 from the free-throw line.
Thomas would come alive in the second half for the Tigers and score 18 points on five-of-10 shooting from the field and seven for seven from the free-throw line.
Smart also had nine second-half points along with three rebounds and two assists.
Tennessee has only let three players score 20 or more points this year. Today Smart scored 20 points and Thomas scored 25 points.
Tennessee once again didn’t get the production it needed from Pons and Fulkerson as Pons scored just three points and grabbed four rebounds. Fulkerson scored just four points and grabbed five rebounds in 24 minutes.
“We need Fulky to get his mojo back, ” James said of Fulkerson. “We know it’s gonna happen sooner or later. We just need it sooner than later. We need him to be Fulky.”
Tennessee needs Pons and Fulkerson to find their game and they’ll have a chance to do it when South Carolina comes to Thompson-Boling Arena Tuesday for an 8:30 p.m. ET tipoff on SEC Network.