Tigers top Tennessee in SEC opener

LSU guard Javonte Smart loves playing Tennessee.

Smart, who scored a career-high 29 points in the Tigers’ 82-80 overtime home win over the Vols last season, put the Big Orange in his back pocket again.

Smart scored 21 points, hitting 5-of-8 3’s, as LSU handled Tennessee 78-64 in Knoxville in a Saturday afternoon SEC season opener for both teams.

The Tigers (9-4, 1-0 SEC) also got key buckets in the stretch from guard Skylar Mays and forward Trendon Watford. Mays finished with 17 points and Watford had 15 points and 9 rebounds.

Tennessee (8-5, 0-1) tied a season-high for most points allowed. The Vols were led by 18 points each from swingman Yves Pons and guard Santiago Vescovi.

“We had a connected group today,” LSU coach Will Wade. “It was a total team effort, that’s what you’ve got to do on the road. I told our guys I didn’t think Tennessee could score enough to beat us if we didn’t hand them points through turnovers. Our guys were locked in.”

LSU led just twice in the first half at 7-4 and at halftime 38-37 when Smart hit one of his three first-half 3’s.

Spurred by infusion of 3-point shooting from Vescovi, a freshman from Uruguay making his college debut after getting cleared by the NCAA, a 11-0 run put Tennessee in command in the game’s opening five minutes.

A 7-0 LSU rally got the Tigers back in striking distance and even survived a stretch in which Tennessee’s six straight baskets were all 3s.

LSU was able to take the one-point lead at the half for two reasons.

The Tigers almost matched Tennessee’s first-half 3-point firing, going 6-for-13 compared to the Vols’ 9-of-13. Also, LSU was 6-of-6 from the free throw line while Tennessee didn’t attempt a free throw.

By the time the Vols got their first free throw attempts with 11:15 left in the game, LSU took a 59-49 lead with gritty defense, wise shot selection and smarter offensive decision-making.

In the game’s final 10 minutes, the Tigers’ biggest worry suddenly became fouls

Leading rebounder Emmitt Williams went to bench with his fourth foul at the 8:36 mark. A couple of minutes early, springy forward Marlon Taylor took a seat with three fouls.

The Vols took advantage by pounding the offensive boards and making hustle plays to get extra possessions.

The Tigers led 65-57 when Taylor re-entered the game. A  6-0 LSU run and a 71-57 lead with 3:46 left was keyed by a Mays 3-pointer and his breakaway two-handed dunk.

LSU has a two-game homestand against Arkansas (11-1) Wednesday at 8 p.m. and vs. Mississippi State (9-3) Saturday at 7 p.m.

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Ron Higgins

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