After notching a too-good-to-be-true beating on Kentucky just three days prior, many wondered if the Tennessee Volunteers could prevent an offensive hangover against the LSU Tigers.
Jordan McRae took that matter into his own hands.
Thanks to McRae’s career-high 34 points and another strong shooting performance team-wide, the Vols staved off a pesky LSU squad to secure a 82-72 victory Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin admitted he’s finally seeing the team he wanted back in November.
“It’s a different team,” Martin said. “This is the team I thought we’d be at the beginning of the season.”
Efficiency was key for the Vols (15-10, 7-6 SEC), who shot 57.4 percent from the floor and 18-for-21 from the free-throw line.
The Tigers (15-9, 6-7 SEC) have hung their hat on three-point defense all season, but that wasn’t the case Tuesday night. The Vols couldn’t be stopped from behind the arc, shooting 10-for-15 against an LSU squad that leads the SEC in three-point defense.
McRae was the leading force in that department, notching a perfect 6-for-6 performance from deep. Before Tuesday, he only made four of his previous 21 three-point attempts.
“When you allow the offense to dictate when you get shots and go through Jarnell Stokes, you get open looks,” Martin said. “It’s a lot easier to get shots when you know where your shots are coming from.”
Hidden in McRae’s career game was the performance of junior guard Trae Golden, who finished with 20 points and eight assists. The last time Tennessee saw one player notch 30 points and another score 20 in the same game was in 2006 against Western Kentucky.
Golden’s struggles this season have been well documented, but his coach is noticing his increased contributions.
"We're doing a good job of scoring the ball, moving the ball and attacking,” Martin said. “You have to credit that to Trae Golden."
Stokes notched his 11th double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Tennessee’s big man was quick to notice how his presence affected the open looks his teammates received.
"I didn't call for the ball much tonight,” Stokes said. “If guys are playing off our shooters ... we'll make you pay for that."
Though it wasn’t only Tennessee players who lit up the scoreboard Tuesday night. LSU sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant III attacked the Vols’ frontcourt, putting up 24 points and eight rebounds before fouling out with 3:21 remaining.
The Vols scored at will early on. Martin’s squad shot 59.3 percent from the floor in the opening frame and cruised to a 40-30 halftime lead.
The backcourt duo of McRae and Golden couldn’t be stopped in the first half, as they combined for 28 points – 14 apiece – on 11-of-16 shooting in the game’s first 20 minutes.
Now winners of their last four games and in the latter half of February, the Vols are surging at the right time. Golden wasn’t shy about the main driving force behind the team’s optimism through some rough stretches earlier on in the season.
“We were never defeated,” Golden said. “Coach Martin won’t let us act defeated.”
The Vols are back in action Saturday on the road against Texas A&M in their first ever conference matchup against the Aggies.