KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Javonte Smart scored 21 points as defending Southeastern Conference champion LSU withstood Tennessee’s 3-point barrage and opened its league schedule Saturday with a 78-64 road victory over the Volunteers.
Tennessee (8-5) lost for the fourth time in its last five games despite shooting 13 of 26 from 3-point range. The 13 3-pointers represented a season high for the Vols.
Yves Pons and Santiago Vescovi – making his Tennessee debut – had 18 points each for the Vols. Tennessee also got 13 from Josiah-Jordan James.
LSU (9-4) won the SEC regular-season title last year while Tennessee tied for second place after owning the nation’s No. 1 ranking for nearly a month. But both teams lost much of the talent that got them to that point.
Tennessee needed to replace three draft picks (All-America forward Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone) from last year’s team and lost senior leader Lamonte’ Turner to season-ending shoulder surgery last month. LSU lost its top-two scorers from last year’s team when Tremont Waters and Naz Reid turned pro.
Both teams have struggled to adjust, though LSU has now bounced back from a recent two-game skid by winning two straight.
The Vols were hoping to get a spark from Vescovi, who arrived on campus Dec. 28 just as the Vols were playing their first game without Turner. The 18-year-old Vescovi is from Uruguay but most recently played for the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia.
Fifteen days after Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Vescovi was “highly unlikely” to play this season, the newcomer was in the Vols’ starting lineup. The sudden end to Turner’s season caused Barnes to change his plans regarding Vescovi.
Vescovi shot 6 of 9 from 3-point range and had six rebounds and four assists, but he also committed nine of Tennessee’s 14 turnovers.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Vescovi triggered an 11-0 run that gave Tennessee an early 15-7 lead. Tennessee stayed ahead for most of the first half before a late 7-0 spurt gave LSU a 38-37 lead at the intermission.
Tennessee briefly regained the lead when Pons scored 28 seconds into the second half, but LSU quickly regained control and stayed in front the rest of the way.
LSU: The Tigers began their SEC title defense by showing the same road toughness that helped them win the championship last year. LSU went 9-0 in SEC road games last year. The Tigers had lost 84-82 at VCU in their only true road game before Saturday, but they showed plenty of poise even when Tennessee was sizzling from long range.
Tennessee: The Vols’ improved 3-point shooting was a welcome development. Tennessee entered the day having shot 24.9% from 3-point range (44 of 177) over its last nine games. But the Vols still need better shooting from senior guard Jordan Bowden, who shot 1 of 12 Saturday and scored just three points. Bowden entered the day with a team-high 12.9 points per game, but he has shot 3 of 25 over his last two games.
LSU hosts Arkansas on Wednesday.
Tennessee visits Missouri on Tuesday.
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