KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With that loss Wednesday night still fresh in their minds, Saturday was the perfect time for the LSU men’s basketball team to strengthen its résumé for what it hopes is another NCAA tournament bid.
On the road again, LSU had a chance to atone for its home setback to Alabama and get back on track for a tournament bid against a Tennessee team that had every reason to feel sorry for itself.
Instead, Tennessee, which had to play without leading scorer Kevin Punter just two nights after a 10-point loss at Kentucky, played more like the team that was fighting for its postseason life as it hammered LSU 81-65 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Now LSU’s NCAA tournament hopes are hanging by a thread after dropping back-to-back Southeastern Conference games for the first time in more than a year.
The Tigers’ latest loss, their third in the past four league games, left coach Johnny Jones and his players searching for answers.
“We’ve just got to do some soul-searching and make sure we dig down deep and see if you’re part of the problem or part of the solution,” Jones said. “(It’s) what can you do as an individual to get better to allow our team to make the type of progress we need to have success down this stretch.”
As it was, the afternoon started strangely enough for LSU (16-11, 9-5) when Ben Simmons wasn’t in the starting lineup for the first time this season because of an academic issue, and things didn’t get much better after that even though Simmons entered the game just 4½ minutes in.
Tennessee (13-14, 6-8) had to face LSU without Punter, who played only 33 minutes against Kentucky because of a sore right ankle. Guard Devon Baulkman also didn’t start because of a shoulder problem.
Tennessee hardly missed Punter, who was second in the SEC with 22.2 points per game, when it jumped on LSU early.
“We knew it was going to be a tough basketball game up here and certainly didn’t think, after getting the news that one of their premier starters wouldn’t be available to them, that we should be able to relax,” Jones said.
The Tigers led only five times — the last at the 12:37 mark of the first half when Antonio Blakeney gave his team an 11-9 advantage with a 3-pointer.
But that would be it as Tennessee got going and built an eight-point lead late in the half before settling for a 31-25 advantage at halftime.
Jones said he could tell early that his team didn’t have the offensive flow it usually plays with but said Simmons being on the bench didn’t affect the team.
“I thought we wanted to concentrate on going in and punching the ball inside, and I thought that may have taken us out of a little bit of a rhythm,” he said of his shooters. “We didn’t allow the game to flow, and I thought that hindered us a bit in terms of scoring early.”
Jones said he had hopes of making a strong run coming out for the start of the second half, but Tennessee, which shot just 34.4 percent, started feeling it — even without Punter.
Tennessee steadily added to the lead after Simmons, who finished with a game-high 21 points, hit a free throw to start the second half.
The Vols pushed it to a 17-point cushion with 13:29 to play and enjoyed their largest lead at 19 points (66-47) when Armani Moore buried a 3-pointer with 5:47 remaining.
The Tigers never got within 10 points the rest of the way.
“I thought we’d be able to make plays and put ourselves in position to make a run, especially after we had a better flow going there before halftime,” Jones said. “But it just didn’t pan out for us. We were playing a very confident basketball team by then.”
Indeed, Tennessee was red hot in the second half,connecting on 20 of 31 field-goal attempts for 64.5 percent and wound up shooting 49.2 percent for the game to LSU’s 40.3 percent.
Guards Robert Hubbs and Detrick Mostella, who started in place of Punter and Baulkman, had 19 and 10 points, while Moore had 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Blakeney was the only other player besides Simmons in double digits for LSU with 20 as he made 8 of 15 shots. He also had seven rebounds.
“They made shots; they got late into the shot clock and made shots,” Blakeney said. “If they missed, they got an offensive rebound. The few times that we got stops, we gave it right back with careless turnovers. That’s stuff we can’t do.”
Of course, Jones knew his team didn’t play well enough on either end to get the job done — leading to some frustrating looks as the game went on.
“Oh yeah, they’re real disappointed,” Jones said of what his team is feeling. “You have to concentrate and be able to play through runs and really tight games. You’ve got to be able to do that.
“We’ve done it at points in the season, but this was a good opportunity today ... and we didn’t take advantage of a great opportunity.”