No. 16 Tennessee and LSU are both part of a tight battle for second place in the SEC as they prepare to meet Saturday in Baton Rouge, La.
The Volunteers (14-4) and the Tigers (12-6) are 7-4 in league play as is Arkansas. Missouri and Florida are 6-4. First-place Alabama is 11-1.
“I also feel like the team as a whole is getting more comfortable,” said Tennessee freshman Jaden Springer, whose 30 points in an 89-81 home victory against Georgia on Wednesday represented a second-consecutive season-high for him. “We’re playing with a faster pace and getting up and down the court and it’s paying off for us.”
The Volunteers held a 44-26 halftime lead against Georgia and led by as many as 23 points in the second half before a sloppy finish.
“There were a lot of good things,” coach Rick Barnes said. “A lot of guys had some heavy minutes, and maybe fatigue had a little bit to do with (the finish). We can’t give up 55 points in the second half. And some of those we had no defense for because of (17) turnovers.”
Barnes said he thinks Yves Pons, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year who has led the Vols in scoring in each of the last five games in which he played, will return from a knee injury that sidelined him against Georgia and play against LSU.
Josiah-Jordan James started in Pons’ place and scored a career-high 18 points.
“We knew we would lose a lot of production with Yves being out,” James said. “So, everyone really had to pick up the slack.”
LSU got a key player back in its last game as Darius Days returned from a one-game absence due to a sprained ankle to score 16 points and grab 11 rebounds in a 94-80 victory at Mississippi State on Wednesday.
“Days is a total difference-maker for us,” Tigers coach Will Wade said.
Three other Tigers scored in double figures as the team won for the second time in six games.
“Everything was night-and-day better than what it’s been,” Wade said.
The Tigers were especially efficient on offense. They shot a season-best 61.3 percent from the field. It also was LSU’s highest field-goal percentage in a road game since shooting 62 percent at Ole Miss on Feb. 15, 2000. LSU also made a season-high 38 field goals, topping the 34 it posted in a 92-76 rout of Arkansas on Jan. 13.
“We swung the ball,” Days said. “Everybody was happy. Everybody was doing their thing tonight. We looked great out there.”
Cameron Thomas scored a game-high 25 points, going 9-for-16 from the field, and Javonte Smart had 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting. Smart added a career-high 11 assists for his first career double-double.
“I thought we played with a tremendous edge that led to us winning,” Wade said. “We moved the ball. This is closer to how we need to be playing.”
The Tigers went 2-2 during a stretch of four consecutive SEC road games, their longest since the 1972 season. LSU will be playing its first conference home game since Jan. 19, though it hosted then-No. 10 Texas Tech in a nonleague game on Jan. 30.
–Field Level Media