KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — LSU opened its Southeastern Conference title defense by displaying the same road toughness that enabled the Tigers to win the league’s regular-season championship last year.
Javonte Smart scored 21 points Saturday as LSU overcame an early nine-point deficit and withstood Tennessee’s 3-point barrage to earn a 78-64 road victory over the Volunteers. LSU (9-4) went unbeaten in SEC road games last year.
“When you win a couple, you get that confidence,” said LSU’s Skylar Mays, who scored 17 points. “We feel like we’re really good on the road. That’s kind of how it goes. When you play with confidence, things tend to go right for you.’’
Tennessee (8-5) lost for the fourth time in its last five games despite getting a spark from point guard Santiago Vescovi in his Vols debut.
Just one week after arriving on campus, Vescovi moved into the starting lineup and scored 18 points while shooting 6 of 9 from 3-point range. The 6-foot-2 freshman showed he could help fill the void that was created when Lamonte’ Turner underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
Vescovi’s shooting excited a Thompson-Boling Arena crowd announced at 18,653. Vescovi, who is from Uruguay but most recently played for the NBA Global Academy in Australia, said he never had played in front of more than 7,000 fans.
“I still have a not very good feeling about the game because it was a tough loss,” Vescovi said. “I don’t really care about how I played. I just care about whether we won or we lost. All this is about, it’s about the team.”
Yves Pons also scored 18 and Josiah-Jordan James had 15 for Tennessee, which shot 13 of 26 from 3-point range. Trendon Watford had 15 points and eight rebounds for LSU, which went 10 of 21 on 3-point attempts.
Tennessee’s decision to start Vescovi appeared to throw LSU off stride at the beginning of the game when Vescovi made consecutive 3-pointers during an early 11-0 run that helped Tennessee lead for most of the first half.
“Our whole game plan changed because he became the point guard in the game,” Smart said. “We’d never seen him play before. We got like three plays of him on film, so we just tried to fit it into the game, tried to slow him down, just tried to put some length on him and make it hard for him.”
That plan eventually paid off.
LSU scored the final seven points of the first half to grab a 38-37 lead at the intermission. Pons scored the first basket after halftime as Tennessee briefly regained the lead, but LSU quickly regained control and stayed in command by shooting 57.7% in the second half.
LSU outscored Tennessee 19-9 in points off turnovers and did much of that damage against Vescovi. Although Vescovi had six rebounds and four assists to go along with his 18 points, he also had nine of Tennessee’s 14 turnovers.
“He’s going to make some mistakes that we’re going to have to live with because he’s trying to start a season in the middle of the season - his first game being a conference game,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “But here’s no doubt, I think everybody saw he’s got a chance to be a terrific player.’’
LSU: The Tigers lost their top two scorers from last year's SEC championship team when Tremont Waters and Naz Reid turned pro, but they're starting to return to form after an up-and-down start. After losing consecutive games to East Tennessee State and Southern California, LSU has bounced back by defeating previously unbeaten Liberty and earning this victory at Tennessee. LSU had lost its only previous true road game this season 84-82 at VCU but showed plenty of poise even after Tennessee built its early lead.
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.
HOME MAGIC MISSING
After winning 31 consecutive games at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee has lost three of its last four in this building. Tennessee had the nation’s longest active Division I home winning streak before losing 51-47 to No. 9 Memphis on Dec. 14. The Vols fell 68-48 at home to Wisconsin two weeks later.
SMART’S FAVORITE FOE
Smart’s 21 points Saturday matched a career high. The sophomore guard scored a career-high 29 points in an 82-80 victory over Tennessee last season.
LSU hosts Arkansas on Wednesday.
Tennessee visits Missouri on Tuesday.
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