KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With as many down-to-the-wire games as the LSU men’s basketball team has had this season, the first half of Saturday’s game with Tennessee almost seemed too good to be true.
So when the Tigers went off to the locker room for halftime with a colossal 27-point advantage, LSU coach Johnny Jones was both stunned and wary.
“That doesn’t happen too much for us,” a smiling Jones said after a thorough 73-55 beating of Tennessee in a much-needed bounce-back game.
Even though the victory couldn’t totally erase Tuesday night’s bitter two-point loss to top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky, it enhanced the Tigers’ postseason résumé — for now.
There were lots of positives that came out of a near-flawless first half in which LSU connected on 64.0 percent of its shots from the field, going 7-of-10 from 3-point range, and played solid defense — especially in holding Tennessee’s best player, point guard Josh Richardson, to one field goal and four points.
LSU also had only five turnovers in the first half to further crush a Tennessee team that was coming off an overtime win at Vanderbilt two nights earlier.
But even with its loss against Kentucky, LSU had more momentum than Tennessee when the Tigers went to work in shredding the Vols’ 2-3 matchup zone from the opening tip.
“It was a big game Tuesday, and we knocked down some shots in that game, too, so there was a lot of momentum and confidence tonight,” LSU guard Tim Quarterman said. “We were just wanting to get a big win on the road.”
It certainly came at the right time with another road game at Texas A&M on Tuesday night, which could further help LSU’s chances of being in good shape for an NCAA tournament bid a month from now.
“We’re hopeful that we’re getting (together) as a team,” Jones said after LSU put together a third consecutive passable performance following a loss to Auburn on Feb. 5. “You want to be playing your playing your best basketball in February and March, and hopefully, we’re trending down that road.
“The last few games we’ve played have been good. That’s encouraging for us, and we just have to continue to build.”
In addition to their shooting in the first half, LSU played solid defense against Tennessee, and the Tigers dominated play after Jarell Martin went to the bench with his second foul in the first eight minutes of the game.
Over the final 12:48 of the first half, LSU outscored Tennessee 36-12 to take the huge lead to the locker room.
“The team responded well; somebody had to fill that void,” Jones said. “For the team to play like that in his absence, I thought we took some positive strides.”
The commanding halftime lead was almost too commanding, if there can be such a thing, when Tennessee went on a 13-0 run after LSU hit a free throw to start the second period.
“We wanted to go out there with the same intensity we started with in the first half, but unfortunately, they made a big run,” Quarterman said. “We just had to withstand that run and make plays of our own, and we did that as a team.”
After a few anxious minutes, LSU regained control and finished off Tennessee.
“Any time you get a lead like that, it’s hard for guys to really focus and concentrate as much as they did in getting it,” Jones said. “Your better teams continue to execute when they have leads. Sometimes guys will get a little bit lax or play a little hesitant, and we did that early part of the second half.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever been in that situation before,” guard Keith Hornsby said. “We came out and we weren’t aggressive enough in the second half. We tried to protect the lead a little too much, and they came out with a real head of steam and made some good plays.”
LSU was simply too big, too strong, too powerful for Tennessee, an undersized team that was intimidated when it had nine shots swatted away — seven by forward Jordan Mickey.
But, Jones stressed, his team has to keep playing that way.
“Each game, we have to get better and execute like we did there in the first half,” he said. “We have to make sure we keep doing that, but do it in longer stretches. When we do, we have a chance to have some positive results.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.