Vols 'win the fight' in home triumph over LSU

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee forward Uros Plavsic celebrates with fans during the second half of the Vols' SEC win against LSU on Saturday night in Knoxville.

The Tennessee Volunteers were ready for LSU at the opening tip, and they were ready for the closing stretch, too.

Tennessee scored the first 14 points Saturday night inside Thompson-Boling Arena, but the No. 24 Vols didn't secure the 64-50 triumph over the No. 13 Tigers until reeling off 13 consecutive points in the game's final minutes.

The Vols improved to 13-5 overall and 4-3 in Southeastern Conference play after avenging a 79-67 loss at LSU on Jan. 8 that served as a fourth straight series win by the Tigers.

"Defensively, we were better here than we were in Baton Rouge," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said in a news conference. "We had way too many easy bailouts down there, and I thought we really went at it rebounding today against a team that really gets off the ground. It was the kind of game we thought it would be, hard fought and physical, but I think they're all going to be like that."

Junior guard Santiago Vescovi accounted for five of Tennessee's 10 made 3-pointers and scored a team-high 16 points for the Vols, who improved to 10-0 at home this season.

Some tense moments were expected Saturday given the emotion LSU has become known for, and that was certainly the case. Technical fouls were assessed to both teams as they walked off the floor at halftime, and Barnes was asked afterward about the challenge of bringing passion but not overdoing it.

"There is a line, but there is also a line you've got to walk up to," Barnes said. "You can't let them think they're going to win that part of the game. We talked about what we needed to do and the way we needed to do it within the rules of the game."

Said Uros Plavsic: "They wanted to win the fight, and we wanted to win the basketball game. I think we did both, actually."

Tari Eason's layup and free throw with five minutes remaining pulled LSU within 51-45, but the next minute was a disaster for the Tigers, as a John Fulkerson jumper was followed by Zakai Zeigler's 3-pointer and Eason picking up his fifth foul. A Plavsic dunk with 1:42 left capped the 13-0 run and gave Tennessee its largest lead of the game at 64-45.

Plavsic, who made his second straight start, tallied 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting and also grabbed six rebounds.

"We knew they were going to bring the fight over here, but this is our house, and we've got to protect it," Plavsic said. "We had to match their energy and exceed it every single possession."

photo Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee junior guard Santiago Vescovi celebrates one of his five 3-point baskets during Saturday night's 64-50 win over LSU.

Eason led LSU with 16 points. The Tigers (15-4, 3-4) played their fourth straight game without senior guard Xavier Pinson, who sprained an MCL in their win over the Vols.

"We couldn't get anything going offensively," Tigers coach Will Wade said on a Zoom call. "I thought this was as poor as we've played. I thought we looked tired, and I thought we looked slow.

"Give Tennessee credit, though, because they made it hard on us."

Tennessee took a stunning two-touchdown lead out of the gate by making four of its first seven 3-point attempts, with Vescovi connecting twice and Kennedy Chandler and Josiah-Jordan James making one apiece. The Vols led 14-0 until a Darius Days jumper at the 13:41 mark of the first half, but Days and Eason made 3-pointers to get the Tigers within 17-10.

The Vols led just 29-24 at halftime but regained a double-digit advantage at 37-26 on a Chandler layup with 14:13 remaining. Fulkerson scored his 999th and 1,000th career points on a pair of free throws midway through the second half to extend Tennessee's lead to 46-32.

"This was a terrific win for us, but we're getting towards the end of January," Barnes said. "By now, we've got to know that this is what we've got to do - home or away."

Odds and ends

Saturday marked Tennessee's 11th consecutive home win dating to last season. ... Vols senior guard Victor Bailey did not play but was available, according to Barnes. ... The Tennessee basketball Twitter account afterward posted "Fun Basketball Instance," referencing Wade's involvement with the FBI probe into the sport.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.