Tennessee knew its offense would be tested at No. 21 LSU Saturday night, but the Vols never imagined their defense would take a step back.
No. 18 Tennessee’s offense continued to struggle and the nation’s second best defense had its worst game of the season as the Vols fell 79-67 to LSU Saturday night at the Maravich Center.
“We are a good team. We have to be better,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “We have to get better. I think we can get better. It is frustrating with the way we played offense the other night and based on the other night, I can assure you we were tight the other night. Tonight, I didn’t think we were tight. I just thought some guys got down on themselves because they had wide-open shots that weren’t going in and they let it affect them.”
The Vols (10-4, 1-2 SEC) were dominated in every fashion by the Tigers for three quarters of the night. The Vols’ offense that was given fits by Ole Miss continued its recent trend with yet another five-to-seven minute stretch of basketball as bad as Tennessee has played all season.
The Vols could not shoot from the field, recording their fourth-straight game of under 40%. Their mark from three-point range was no better. The Vols went 6-of-24 from deep, including a stretch of nine-consecutive misses in the first half.
Tennessee was outscored by a wide margin in both points in the paint (38-24) and second chance points (18-5). LSU had more points off turnovers (23-13) despite the fact that it turned the ball over more times than Tennessee did.
Tennessee did right the ship defensively late in the second half and LSU went on a cold streak to rival Tennessee’s from earlier in the game, but the damage had been done by that point.
Tennessee’s defense – which entered the matchup ranked second behind LSU – took a massive step backwards. The Vols have been able to hang their hat this season on the fact that their defense is so good, they are always in games no matter how much their offense struggled.
Saturday night was a reality check for the Vols on what can happen if their defense is not there too.
“We do really take great pride in our defense,” junior forward Uros Plavsic said. “When we get outscored in that way, being sloppy with the ball and some unforced turnovers that had nothing to do with them, you know, we just turned the ball over. That is something that brings you down a little bit.”
Kennedy Chandler finished as the Vols’ leading scorer with 19 points on 50% shooting. Two other Vols finished in double-figure scoring.
Santiago Vescovi, who made a trio of triples and went 5-for-7 at the free-throw line, and Plavsic, who totaled all 12 of his points in the second half. Outside of those three players, the Vols were non-existent.
The lack of offense put more pressure on the true freshman Chandler to make something happen, and his lack of experience showed in some careless mistakes.
Chandler did turn the ball over 6 times, and he was noticeably lackadaisical running point at a time late in the game when the Vols needed to move fast, down just a few scores. Chandler was hardly the biggest issue, however.
“Overall, he fought today. He really did,” Barnes said of Chandler. “He will learn. But all this is new to him. I have said before, for any freshman coming in, it is more difficult than they probably think. I just liked the fight today. I thought he put up a fight today.”
Sixth-year senior John Fulkerson totaled 3 points without a field goal and 5 rebounds in 17 minutes, his second-consecutive bad game after coming back from COVID-19. Fulkerson’s teammates remain confident in his ability to rebound from the illness, but Barnes did not mince his words.
“We need John to help us,” Barnes said. “If not, he needs to step aside, I’m telling you. We need him. We’ve talked to him enough about it”.
Whether or not Fulkerson – or any of the Vols for that matter – step up and respond to Barnes’ call remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, the Vols’ schedule is not getting any easier over the next month with road trips to Kentucky and Vanderbilt looming ahead, not to mention hosting LSU in two weeks times.
The Vols know they cannot afford the inconsistencies for long.
“We just got to get a rhythm,” freshman guard Jahmai Mashack said. “The main thing with basketball is always, is it’s going to be momentum plays, it’s going to be runs, it’s going to be rhythm. And I think we just have to hit our rhythm at better times.”