Only Tennessee’s players know for sure whether their effort was half-hearted.
Their performance was about half as good as it could be, though, and that much was obvious to the 15,152 at Bridgestone Arena for Thursday’s first session at the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Volunteers’ play at the defensive end was enough to offset a sub-par offensive performance and — more importantly — to get them into the quarterfinals. They made just 19 shots and matched their season-low point total but still defeated LSU 59-49 in an uninspired outing.
“I should have anticipated we would not be as excited about playing LSU as we would have a higher seeded team,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We were not as excited as we could have been about playing early. We should have come out more aggressively in a man-to-man defense and tried to get a little bit of energy.”
Tennessee (24-7), ranked 15th, trailed for more than 18 minutes of the first half but got even, 21-21, on a free throw by Wyane Chism with one second to go before intermission. The score was tied again more than four minutes into the second half before an 8-0 in a little more than four minutes put the Volunteers ahead to stay.
The only other time this season they failed to score at least 60 points was on Feb. 4, when they won 59-54 against LSU at Baton Rouge.
“For the most part, we were in a position where we could have come out with a victory,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said. “I can’t fault our effort. I can’t fault our execution.”
The Tigers (11-20) controlled the tempo and limited Tennessee’s ability to score because they relied almost exclusively on a zone defense.
The Volunteers, the SEC’s worst 3-point shooting team made just four of 23 3-pointers (17.4 percent) in the contest. Scotty Hopson was 0-for-4, Cameron Tatum was 1-for-5, and Bobby Maze was 1-for-6.
Early on Chism, who made a team-high two 3-pointers, was the only thing Tennessee relied on for offense. The senior center was the only UT to player who scored in the first 11:40 – and he scored only seven in that stretch. J.P. Prince finally became the second Volunteer to make a basket when he finished off a fast break, courtesy of an assist from Chism.
Eventually three players finished in double figures. Prince scored 11 points and Brian Williams added 14 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
“The difference (in the second half) was the type of shots we took,” Maze said. “… We attacked the basket and were able to get to the free throw line. In the first half, we just settled.
“We did a good job of playing defense the whole time, which is why we won the game.”
LSU got a game-high 18 points from Storm Warren and 10 from senior Tasmin Mitchell in a much more balanced performance. It was exactly 10-for-28 from the field (35.7 percent) in each half.
In the end, Tennessee’s reaction to its victory — UT next will play Ole Miss, 2:15 p.m., Friday — was right on par with the performance that produced it.
“The SEC tournament is supposed to be a celebration of our basketball,” Pearl said. “The way we played and how effective LSU was — this wasn’t a celebration.”
The Vols followed Alabama's comeback win over South Carolina, with the Crimson Tide now getting a shot at top-seeded Kentucky.