Javonte Smart just kind of laughs about it.
“Every year we play them, I seem to just kill them,” he said.
But the LSU point guard’s teammates know, especially fellow junior Darius Days, that when Smart sees an orange jersey it lights his fuse.
“There’s just something about Tennessee he loves to play against them,” Days said of Smart. “He had a crazy game freshman year (scoring a career-high 29 points), he had a crazy game last year (21 points).”
Saturday in Smart’s and LSU’s third straight victory over Vols, this one a 78-65 decision in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, he finished with 20 points including his personal 7-0 run that started an 18-5 second half burst to establish a double digit lead for the game’s final 11 minutes.
“We were able to create some angles for him (Smart) so he is able to drive it and get the ball downhill,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “I think it just happened he’s had three huge games against Tennessee, but he’s had big games against a lot of opponents.”
Once Smart got going, Tigers’ freshman guard Cam Thomas re-started his offense. The nation’s third-leading scorer bucketed 11 of his game-high 25 points in the game’s final 7:43 as LSU (13-6, 8-4 SEC) played one of its most complete games of the season.
LSU shot 51.9 percent (27 of 52) from the field against a Tennessee defense ranked first in the SEC and 10th nationally in scoring defense allowing just 60.8 points per game. The Tigers made 17 of 18 free throws, including 10 of 10 by Thomas.
And aside from a dip in the final 5:20 of the first half when the Tigers allowed the Vols to cut a 12-point lead to five-point halftime margin, LSU’s defense was rock solid. Tennessee finished shooting 35.5 percent (22 of 62) from the field, including just 29 percent (9 of 31) in the first half.
Smart, Thomas and Days, who had 14 points and 5 rebounds, were obvious standouts for the Tigers, who gave their postseason tournament resume a big shot in the arm against a Vols’ team that entered the day No. 11 in the latest NCAA NET rating.
But just as important for LSU were starter Aundre Hyatt and reserves Josh LeBlanc and Eric Gaines.
Hyatt scored 8 points, including two clutch corner 3-pointers, and collected a team-high 8 rebounds. Also, the relentless defense and hustle of LeBlanc and Gaines got LSU through some rough spots in the second half when the Vols were trying to find a spark.
LeBlanc grabbed 5 rebounds, blocked 3 shots, had a steal and prevented the Vols from passing the ball into the low post “at least eight times,” Wade said. Gaines made an acrobatic layup in the second-half spurt that broke open the game and had two steals.
As did LSU, Tennessee had three players finish scoring in double figures, led by freshman guard Jaden Springer who had 21 points and 7 assists.
Yet the Vols couldn’t do enough defensively once they fell behind, especially getting beat off the dribble by Smart, who had 5 driving baskets among his 8 made field goals.
“We did not do a good job of one-on-one defense today,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose team fell to 14-5 overall, 7-5 in the SEC. “We don’t ever want to leave someone on an island. We didn’t do a great job getting to our gaps to help.”
Barnes had nobody who could guard Smart and hadn’t had anyone since Smart destroyed the Vols two years ago when he hit the game winning free throws with 0.6 seconds left in an 82-80 overtime win.
He has averaged 23.3 points, 4 rebounds and 3.7 assists vs. Tennessee while shooting 48.9 from the field, 42.1 in 3-pointers and 93.3 (14 of 15) in free throws.
“We really needed this win,” Smart said. “I went in the mindset to lead our guys to victory. It’s nothing really personal (against Tennessee). I just felt I had to do it today.”
LSU’s next scheduled game is Saturday at home against Auburn. But Wade said after the win over the Vols that LSU will first play on Wednesday to replace one of the two postponed SEC games the Tigers missed because Missouri and Florida failed to meet the COVID-19 protocols.
Those games were originally scheduled at Missouri on Jan. 9 with a home matchup in the PMAC vs. Florida on Feb. 6.
On Sunday, the SEC announced that LSU will play Ole Miss in Oxford for the second time this season. The conference gave no explanation why this was an LSU replacement opponent.
Saturday’s conquest of Tennessee was the first time in almost a month that the Tigers had won at least two straight games. They lost their next four of five, the last defeat a 78-60 decision at Alabama 10 days ago.
“We had a (team) meeting where I did most of the talking after the Alabama loss,” Wade said. “I basically said, `This is how it’s going to be, this is what I’m going to do. I don’t need but six or seven guys who are going to do what the heck I want done and how I want it done.’
“I think we’ve been better since then.”