Wednesday, January 8, 2014
On Jarnell Stokes's 20th birthday, the Vols traveled to Louisiana for the SEC opener against the Tigers. These two teams were both expected to finish 3rd and 4th in the SEC and go dancing in March. The Tigers were coming of an embarrassing defeat against a small but talented Rhode Island school. The Vols were riding on a 3 game winning streak against weaker opponents in Moorehead State, Tuscalum, and a blowout win against a really good Virginia squad.
Tennessee broke open a back-and-forth game late in the first half with a flurry of 3-pointers on the way to its biggest halftime lead in nearly two years and never eased up against LSU in a 68-50 triumph.
Tennessee used smothering defense and red-hot 3-point shooting to take a 38-24 halftime lead. LSU made just 34 percent (11-of-32) of its first half shots. Meanwhile, the Volunteers made seven first-half shots from behind the arc -- four by Barton.
Tennessee took the lead for good at 15-12 on a D'Montre Edwards 3-pointer with 11:58 remaining in the first half. The Vols (10-4, 1-0 SEC) got 19 points from Jordan McRae, 14 from Antonio Barton (12 in the opening half on four 3-pointers) and a ho-hum double-double from human rebounding machine Jarnell Stokes (15 points, 15 rebounds), his seventh this seaosn and the 25th of his three-year career.
The Volunteers protected their double-digit lead throughout the second half. In the first eight minutes after halftime, LSU cut its deficit to a dozen points on three occasions. Each time, Tennessee answered with a basket -- twice by birthday boy Stokes. The Vols pounded the backboards to the tune of 40-28, led by Stokes' 7 on offense and 8 on defense.
The Tigers lost back-to-back games for the first time this season and this one was as thorough as any they have absorbed by a long stretch. The same problems that plagued the Tigers in an unexpected 74-70 loss to Rhode Island last Saturday in their final non-conference game reared up again, this time against a much more talented and veteran Tennessee team that may be playing as well as it has all season.
The first half was competitive until the closing minutes despite the Tigers' shooting woes. The Vols eviscerated LSU's defense with the same slow-paced approach. With the Tigers honed in on not allowing McRae to erupt after he scored a career-best 34 points against them last season, he became a distributor early on. He recorded four of his five assists in the first half, three to Barton who peppered LSU with four 3s -- three in the last 6:23 before halftime, which started the unclimbable mountain for LSU in the 2nd half.
Now the Tigers head out on the road, with a game at South Carolina (12:30 p.m. | SECTV) in Columbia, Mo. The Vols (10-4) will face off against The Texas A&M Aggies (9-4) back home in Knoxville, Saturday, January 11, 2014 - 6:00 PM ET airing on ESPN3
The Vols are starting to look like the top 25 team they were projected to be preseason. With balanced scoring, a smothering defense, an insane duo in Stokes and Maymon under the goal, arguably the best player in the SEC in Jordan Mcrea, and surprise contributions from players like Antonio Barton, the Vols are poised to compete toe to toe against the rest of the SEC and come out on top. Coach Martin needs a NCAA tourney trip this year after disappointing NIT departures the last two seasons, and this team is capable of playing deep into the tournament.
The problem is no one ever knows what team we will see take the floor on any given night, extreme highs and disappointing lows. If the Vols keep playing games like they did against Virginia and LSU, expect a very interesting season and a good bid going into the NCAA Tourney.