KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Even before the opening tip Saturday night, players and staff from No. 13 LSU and No. 24 Tennessee were chirping at each other.
After the Volunteers’ 64-50 victory, nobody said for sure exactly what the teams were at odds over, but Tennessee players were adamant that it had an impact.
“(LSU) wanted to win the fight,” said Tennessee’s 7-foot center Uros Plavsic, who had 12 points and six rebounds. “We wanted to win the basketball game. I think we won both.”
Santiago Vescovi, who led the Vols (13-5, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) with 16 points, said the interaction played a role in them jumping to a 14-0 lead more than 6 minutes into the game and leading wire-to-wire for the victory.
“That (pre-game emotion) definitely set the tone,” said Vescovi. “It helped us get started.”
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said he didn’t know exactly what transpired in the confusion at the beginning. But he liked how his team responded.
Vescovi had two 3-pointers in that initial burst and had 5 of 11 for the game. He had six rebounds and five assists to add to his production. Barnes also credited him with keeping the Vols from getting flustered whenever the Tigers (15-4, 3-4) made a run. Teams are playing him in a more physical manner.
“(Vescovi) was the one who kept everyone organized,” Barnes said. “If we continue to be organized, we’ll be fine on the offensive end.”
“(The physicality) is just part of the game,” said Vescovi. “The key is to not let it affect your game. It just makes me want to play harder.”
LSU closed the gap a few times but could never scale the mountain. The Tigers trailed 29-24 at halftime, but an 8-2 Tennessee run to start the second half gave the Vols more breathing room.
“There is a line you to walk up to,” Barnes said of his team’s mentality. “It’s about doing it the way you do it within the rules of the game. Every team takes on a different personality. Every game is a different personality.”
LSU lost its third straight game. Tari Eason had 16 points, Brandon Murrray scored 15 and Eric Gaines had 10. Tennessee avenged a 12-poiint loss two weeks ago.
Tennessee super-senior John Fulkerson scored eight points, giving him 1,002 for his career.
LSU: Eason had 24 points when LSU beat Tennessee 79-67 at home Jan. 8. During that game, LSU point guard Xavier Pinson went down with a knee injury, and he hasn’t returned since. He may be ready for Texas A&M on Wednesday. … Darius Days went down with an ankle injury in Wednesday’s loss to Alabama but played against the Vols. Early in the second half, he reinjured the ankle, but he returned. … Mechanical problems grounded LSU’s charter flight after the Alabama game. The Tigers finally left Tuscaloosa on Thursday ad went straight to Knoxville instead of back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Tennessee: John Fulkerson scored 24 points in a huge win over Arizona on Dec. 22. In the five games he’s played since, he’s scored a combined 20. The super-senior big man has been replaced in the starting lineup by 7-foot junior Plavsic. … Josiah-Jordan James missed most of the Vanderbilt game after being hit above the eye. He played his normal minutes Saturday.
LSU: After a long time away from home, the Tigers return to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Wednesday night for a date with Texas A&M, a team that received some votes in this week’s poll.
Tennessee: The Vols will tangle with Florida on Wednesday. The Gators have a rugged schedule with Vanderbilt on Saturday, a trip to Ole Miss on Monday and then a swing to Knoxville on Wednesday.