No. 5 Tennessee, No. 13 LSU meet in key SEC matchup
No. 5 Tennessee bounced back from its first Southeastern Conference loss with a victory.
No. 13 LSU will try to respond the same way to its second SEC loss when it hosts the Volunteers on Saturday in Baton Rouge, La.
The top of the league standings will be affected by the outcome between the Volunteers (24-2, 12-1 SEC) and the Tigers (21-5, 11-2).
LSU's 82-77 overtime loss at home to Florida on Wednesday dropped the Tigers out of a first-place tie with Tennessee and into a second-place tie with No. 4 Kentucky (22-4, 11-2).
The Volunteers, who fell 86-69 at Kentucky last Saturday, snapping their 19-game winning streak, bounced back with a 58-46 home win against Vanderbilt on Tuesday. The loss to the Wildcats dropped the Volunteers from the top spot in the AP rankings.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said he had been telling his players for two weeks that they were ripe for a defeat because they weren't improving at the rate they needed to even as they were winning.
However, he was pleased with how his players responded to the loss, the Volunteers' first since an overtime defeat against then-No. 2 Kansas on Nov. 23.
"I thought our guys did everything right leading into this game (against the Commodores)," Barnes said. "We came back, and I thought they, very seriously, took a look at the game after Saturday night and understood the mistakes that we made. We came out (Monday) and had as good of a practice that we've probably had in about three weeks.
"They did the right things, they came in, they went at each other hard, competed very hard. I expected them to do what they did. They know they weren't happy with their performance (at Kentucky). That is why I think they responded the way they did."
Barnes said he was pleased with his team's defense against Vanderbilt, but Tennessee shot just 41 percent from the field, just as it had against Kentucky.
"Honestly, we just aren't worried about that stuff," Volunteers forward Grant Williams said. "You go into slumps, and sometimes you aren't making shots. As hard as we work and as confident as we are, we know guys will make shots. For us, we just aren't worried about that stuff. We know shots will fall."
The Tigers are also trying to bounce back from a subpar shooting performance, primarily on free throws. They had their worst conference game at the foul line, making 64 percent (16 of 25).
"We didn't shoot free throws like we normally shoot free throws," LSU coach Will Wade said.
One player who didn't have any trouble with foul shots was guard Skylar Mays, who made all four of his on his way to a team-high 18 points. All five Tigers starters scored in double figures.
"Obviously we have to shoot better from the free-throw line," Mays said. "I do not think that was the only deciding factor in the game ... but it was a big part of it."
The Tigers followed their first SEC loss, a 90-89 home setback against Arkansas on Feb. 2, with a four-game winning streak that ended against Florida.
"It was not the level of desperation we needed (against the Gators)," Mays said. "They came out more desperate, and you could tell in the first few minutes of the game that it was going to be a street fight. Credit to them, they just played harder than us. They got all the 50/50 balls. When things go like that, it is hard to win that way.
"At the end of the day, we are not getting this game back, so we cannot let this game beat us twice. We are just going to come out and play a lot harder on Saturday."
LSU can mitigate the effect of the loss to Florida by beating Tennessee, which would put the Tigers back into a tie for first and give them victories against their top two competitors for the SEC title. They won at Kentucky, 73-71, on Feb. 12.
"I told our guys all week that Florida was going to give us unbelievable resistance defensively, and I don't think some of our guys believed us," Wade said. "I think some of our guys just thought we would show up and do what we do, but that wasn't the case."
--Field Level Media
Updated February 22, 2019