BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU coach Will Wade sees no reason to put leading scorer Tari Eason in the starting lineup.
At least, not until the Tigers stop winning.
Eason capped a 24-point, 12-rebound performance with a pivotal dunk in transition with 1:21 left, and No. 21 LSU held on to beat No. 18 Tennessee 79-67 on Saturday night for the Tigers’ second-straight triumph over a ranked opponent.
“We’re 14-1. We’re 2-1 in the SEC. Nobody in their right mind would change things up,” Wade said.
“He’s a great player. He plays a ton of minutes. We close the game with him,” Wade continued. “This is how we started the season and we’re not changing any of that.”
Darius Days scored 15 before fouling out in the final minutes and Brandon Murray added 13 points for LSU, which has won two straight — including a victory over No. 16 Kentucky on Tuesday night — since its lone loss of the season at Auburn last week.
“We’re hard workers. We get after it in practice,” said Eason, a transfer from Cincinnati. “We had guys like Days diving on the floor in July. The leadership that he and our other leaders bring is really important, and it has really fed into our other guys.”
The Tigers’ victory may have come at a cost. Starting guard Xavier Pinson, who had nine points and seven assists, had to be helped to the locker room with a right knee injury after slipping during a stop in the lane late in the second half.
Wade said early indications are it’s a sprain and not season-ending, but Pinson will have imaging done on knee ligaments to provide a clearer picture.
Kennedy Chandler scored 19 points and Santiago Vescovi added 14 points for the Volunteers (10-4, 1-2), who trailed by as many as 20 points before pulling as close as five points with three minutes left. Uros Plavsic scored 12 for Tennessee. But the Vols also missed 14 of 37 free throws.
“If you had told me that we were going to get to the free-throw line 37 times, I would have told you we were going to win by 10,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Barnes also was dismayed by LSU’s 23 points off of 15 Vols turnovers.
“Do I want to see us be smarter as a group? Yes,” Barnes said. “The thing that bothered me today was as much time as we talked about taking care of the ball, it was the same guys that normally don’t that didn’t today and it hurt us.”
LSU pulled away for good with the help of Eric Gaines’ steal from Kennedy, which led to Murray’s fast-break layup. Eason followed that with his dunk in transition after Vescovi’s missed 3.
LSU was on the cusp of running the Vols out of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center after a 20-4 run during which Eason scored 11 points, highlighted by his 3 after Pinson’s offensive rebound and dunk after Days blocked Kennedy’s 3-point attempt. That gave LSU a 62-42 lead with 14:13 to play.
But Tennessee settled down, particularly on defense, limiting the Tigers to just five points during the next six-plus minutes while scoring 14 in that span to pull to 67-56 with just less than eight minutes left.
Eason’s soaring fast-break, one-handed dunk over Olivier Nkamhoua made it 69-56, but Tennessee remained undaunted.
Plavsic’s dunk cut it to 69-60, and the scored was 71-63 when Pinson went down. Vescovi’s 3 made it 71-66 before LSU pulled away for good.
Tennessee: The Vols dropped to 2-3 against ranked opponents. They showed how good their defense can be while holding LSU to nine points during a 10-plus minute span in the second half, but their 20-point hole proved too much to overcome on the road against a team that also is strong defensively.
LSU: The Tigers came in shooting 31.6% from 3 for the season and hit 8-18 (44.4%) from deep against the Vols. That boost in perimeter shooting, combined with LSU’s usual tenaciousness around the basket, helped the Tigers become the first team this season to score more than 73 points against Tennessee.
Defensively, LSU had 11 steals and six blocks — two each by Eason and Gaines. The most spectacular block was by Alex Fudge from behind on Plavsic’s dunk attempt.
When asked about how players keeping their composure after seeing their 20-point lead whittled to five, Wade responded by complaining about LSU’s facilities.
“We’re used to difficult circumstances,” Wade said. “The dang water heater’s broken over here. We don’t have hot water.
“We have to move practice because the damn roof leaks; we put the trash cans down and have to go to the second side of the floor when it rained the other day,” Wade continued. “The tougher the situations, the better we do.”
Tennessee: Host South Carolina on Tuesday night.
LSU: Visit Florida on Wednesday night.