The roller-coaster ride of a season continued for the LSU basketball team on Wednesday night at a most inopportune time.
Facing a team it crushed by 18 points on the road just 2½ weeks earlier, LSU, which was riding a three-game winning streak, had an opportunity to solidify its spot in the NCAA tournament field in its home finale against Tennessee.
With a chance to also move a step closer to possibly nailing down the No. 4 seed and a double-bye in the Southeastern Conference tournament next week, LSU couldn’t keep up with Tennessee’s torrid shooting in the second half and the Vols rolled to an easy 78-63 victory.
Tennessee (15-14, 7-10 SEC) looked nothing like the team LSU humiliated on Feb. 14 in Knoxville, and certainly nothing like the team that had lost five in a row and nine of its past 11 conference games coming into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
That was especially true when Tennessee shot 69.2 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes, burying 18-of-26 field-goal attempts — including 5-of-8 from 3-point range — to put LSU (21-9, 10-7) away.
“It was a new experience for us,” Tigers guard Keith Hornsby said. “I don’t think teams have taken it to us in the second half like that … hitting every shot.
“We were kind of looking around sometimes, and it was like, ‘How do we respond? What’s the right way to respond?’ ” he added. “We did make some runs; they just didn’t back down.”
Sufficiently motivated by that earlier 73-55 loss, which included a 27-point halftime deficit, Tennessee had its way with LSU — especially down low against the Tigers’ big men.
The undersized Vols scored 36 points in the paint, attacking Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey whenever possible after spreading the floor.
On the defensive end, they limited the Tigers’ top two scorers to 25 points, nearly eight under their season average, but Martin and Mickey combined for just 13 rebounds after the two averaged 19 per game.
Tennessee had 11 offensive rebounds in the first half when it outrebounded LSU 22-15, helping them to a 33-all tie at the break, and finished the game with a 35-29 advantage over the taller Tigers.
“Prior to the half, I thought Tennessee was a confident basketball team,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “In the second half we needed to come out and take control early. I thought they came out and played extremely well — making shots.
“We didn’t get them to turn it over. We couldn’t get them to stop (hitting shots). They made a lot of individual plays and shot practically 70 percent in the second half, which made it very difficult for us when we did not execute at the level that we needed to on the offensive end.”
After the game was tied at 38 with 17:20 to play on a Martin dunk, Tennessee went on a 24-6 run over the next nine minutes to take control at 62-44.
LSU had just one made field goal in that stretch and that was by Hornsby, who had a career-high 25 points, while Tennessee had 10 field goals — including three from beyond the 3-point line.
“I mean when a team gets hot like that, it’s kind of hard to beat,” LSU guard Tim Quarterman said. “You’re contesting their shots and they’re still hitting. There’s not too much you can do about it.”
Josh Richardson had 20 points to lead Tennessee, while Armani Moore added 19. Robert Hubbs III and Kevin Punter had 12 and 10, respectively. Richardson was 9-of-15 from the floor and Moore was 9-of-14.
“I think they spread us out. … They got down into the shot clock and they made plays at the rim by driving,” Jones said. “They were extremely patient. When we did try to help on defense, they had other guys step up to make shots. I thought they executed at an unbelievable level in the second half.”
“We talked about it the last couple of days … we talked about playing in attack mode and not settling for jump shots,” said UT coach Donnie Tyndall, an LSU assistant from 1997-2001. “We got in the paint a bunch, which led to some draw-and-kick opportunities. In some cases we converted at the rim.
“I thought we did a great job, maybe our best job all year, sharing the basketball and making extra passes. A couple times late in the clock it was huge.”
Martin had 16 points and Quarterman 10 for LSU, but the Tigers went cold about the time the Vols really got going. The Tigers wound up shooting 37.5 percent from the field in the second half and 40.4 percent for the game.
As a result, the Tigers find themselves in a must-win mode at Arkansas, which is in second place in the league, on Saturday.
“They’re all must-win,” Hornsby said. “It feels (deflating), especially when we had played so well the previous three games. But once again, we have to move on and learn from the issues we had tonight and face Arkansas.”