Punch in the gut

Defensive struggles, Tennessee's hot shooting in the second half derail LSU in 74-69 OT loss.

This one hurts.


And depending on how LSU handles the next few days, Wednesday’s 74-69 overtime loss to Tennessee could be the kind of punch in the gut that brings a premature end to what had evolved into a promising stretch run.


The Tigers lost their second game in a row, this one as painful as can be imagined because they coughed up a comfortable lead in large part by struggling with what they have done well most of the season.


The loss leaves LSU (17-12, 7-8 SEC) in a spot where it can wind up anywhere from sixth to ninth place in the league standings for next week’s tournament down the road in New Orleans. The Tigers wrap up the regular season at Auburn on Saturday, and that was part of the focus in the gloomy aftermath Wednesday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.


“We’re going to stay hungry and ready to fight,” point guard Anthony Hickey said.


Added LSU coach Trent Johnson, “There’s more basketball to be played.”


What kind of fight LSU has left remains to be seen after a loss Johnson deemed “about the toughest we’ve had all year.”


The Tigers led 31-16 late in the first half, 35-24 at halftime when Justin Hamilton finished the initial 20 minutes with a nice hustle play and offensive stickback and 50-43 on Hickey’s 3-pointer after the Volunteers (17-13, 9-5) made a huge second-half lunge to climb back into the game.


Storm Warren

LSU played well for most of the first 30 minutes and seemed to have weathered the storm when Hickey jacked in two 3s, Hamilton scored inside and Storm Warren drained the mid-range jumper that has become his bread-and-butter.


But as effective as the Tigers were offensively at times, they uncharacteristically  couldn’t stop the bleeding on the other end of the floor.


Ignited by forwards Jeronne Maymon and freshman Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee pounded away inside and LSU had no answer defensively.


If those two weren’t scoring at ease – they combined to knock down 9-of-12 floor shots in the final 25 minutes – Maymon was drawing fouls. He was 8-for-10 from the foul stripe in the second half to anchor the Vols’ 19-of-22 performance there in the final 25 minutes.


As good as LSU’s interior defense was in the first 20 minutes, with no offensive rebounds allowed or free-throw attempts for Tennessee, the Tigers’ big men struggled equally as much in the second half and overtime.


“We had too many defensive mistakes, and all the mistakes we made, they capitalized on them,” Storm Warren said.


Stokes enrolled in college in January, but he played like a man Wednesday.


With the Vols still down by seven points, Stokes scored eight of his team’s 10 points in a 3:52 span, his jumper from the circle finally knotting the score 57-47 with 3:56 to play. That was part of his 12-point half and 18-point night, a career-best.


Maymon did plenty of heavy lifting in the second half as well, scoring all of his 14 points after the break.


“I really challenged our big guys in the second half to step up,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said.


After Stokes’ shot forged the first tie since 4-4 in the opening minutes, Hickey put LSU back in front when he cranked on a trey from the right wing with 3:37 to go after a timeout.


That was the Tigers’ last made floor shot in a 7½-minute span covering the end of regulation and most of OT and that finally caught up with them.


“We played well; we just didn’t make plays,” Johnson said. “We didn’t make baskets down the stretch, and sometimes it happens like that.”


Meanwhile, Tennessee kept making plays down the stretch. The Volunteers drew even again, 60-60, when Maymon scored inside and hit the first of two free throws with 2:16 to go.


LSU got a last chance to win in regulation, but after a timeout, Hickey’s coast-to-coast drive ended with a missed shot from the baseline.


“We just wanted to score, but it didn’t go down,” Hickey said.


That, as it turned out, might’ve been the Tigers’ best chance, simply to survive.


Instead, the extra session belonged to UT.


Cameron Tatum rifled in a 3-pointer 24 seconds into overtime to give the Vols their first lead of the night and LSU never regained the upper hand.


Andre Stringer connected on 3-of-4 foul shots to even the score, but Trae Golden and Tatum jabbed back-to-back daggers into the Tigers’ flickering hopes.


Golden delivered first, driving the baseline for an acrobatic bank shot and he also drew a foul and made the free throw for a 66-63 lead. After Johnny O’Bryant finished a strong drive with a hoop, Tatum glided across the lane for a jump hook with 34.4 seconds on the clock.


Johnson called a timeout and set up a play for a 3-point look, and Hamilton popped open on the right wing for a wide-open look. But the shot rimmed out, Golden rebounded and began a string of six consecutive free throws in the closing 16.8 seconds.


Johnson: 'It was probably about the toughest loss we've had all year.'

“They made plays and we didn’t, bottom line,” Johnson said.


“It was there for the taking.”


It was Tennessee that did the taking, though, winning its seventh game in February and handing LSU a loss that could have a lingering effect.


“They’re down; they’re hurt,” Johnson said of his team. “They’re probably as hurt as they’ve been all year.”


Golden’s nine points in overtime and 9-of-9 effort from the foul stripe led to 14 points.


Hamilton paced the Tigers with 17 points and 9 rebounds but missed his last three floor shots. Hickey scored 12 – four second-half 3s – and O’Bryant added 11 points.


Men in the middle

TSD recap

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VIDEO: Players talk OT loss to Tennessee

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