"When you're knocking down shots, it becomes contagious," said Tony Jones, filling in for suspended head man Bruce Pearl. "We probably shot more 3-pointers than I would like but that got us off to a good start."
Indeed it did.
Melvin Goins opened the game with a 3-pointer. Scotty Hopson added another. Cameron Tatum hit two in a row. Skylar McBee drained one, then Hopson hit another. The six 3-balls foiled LSU's plan to keep the pace slow and the score low, enabling Tennessee to build a 43-27 halftime lead en route to a 75-53 romp.
"It's hard for teams to play zone when you're knocking down shots like that," McBee said. "It gave us some confidence early, and it carried over throughout the whole game."
Wednesday's game was in stark contrast to the two 2010 meetings, when Tennessee shot 27.8 percent from 3 in a 59-54 win at Baton Rouge and 17.4 percent in a 59-49 win in the SEC Tournament. This time the Vols hit 46.2 percent (6 of 13) beyond the arc in the first half and four of their first nine of the second half as the lead swelled to 63-43.
"Ball movement," Goins said. "Guys were wanting to get other guys open shots. We were turning down the first shot and looking for our teammates."
That was reflected in the final stats. Tennessee recorded 20 assists en route to 29 baskets. Despite making more passes than usual, the Vols committed a season-low seven turnovers.
"Twenty assists on 29 baskets ... that tells me our guys were sharing the basketball," Jones said. "We did a good job of hitting Scotty in rhythm for some open shots. We hit Skylar in rhythm for some shots. Melvin got some shots off ball reversal. We got the ball to the short corner and Cam got some shots."
Hopson scored 10 of Tennessee's first 14 points and had 17 at the break. Despite the 43-27 halftime bulge, Vol fans were understandably nervous. They'd seen the Big Orange get complacent and blow big leads several times this season.
Not this time, though.
"We've come out and laid eggs in some instances; we've given away double-digit leads in some instances this year," Jones noted. "I wanted to make sure they were aware of that."
Whatever he said during the break, it worked. Hopson nailed another 3 to open the second half, bumping the lead to 46-27. LSU never got closer than 13 points thereafter.
Hopson hit 9 of 14 shots and finished with 22 points, his career best against an SEC opponent. He combined with backcourt mates Tatum (13 points on 5-of-9 shooting) and Goins (11 points on 4-of-8 shooting) to hit 18 of 31 field-goal tries and 7 of 16 from 3. Goins also posted 6 assists and just 1 turnover in 22 minutes at the point.
Freshman Tobias Harris put together his sixth double/double with 11 points and a like number of rebounds. John Fields blocked five shots, just one off the single-game school record, as Tennessee improved to 13-7 overall and 3-2 in SEC play.
Jones applauded his team's "great effort," noting that the Vols got back to exhibiting the traits that enabled the program to register 20-win seasons and NCAA appearances the past five years in a row.
"Our message was to get our identity back," he said. "We built this program in the five years we've been here on toughness, aggression and playing Tennessee basketball. We kind of got away from that, especially in the second half (of last Saturday's 72-61 loss) against UConn."
Jones believes the Vols took a step toward regaining their identity vs. LSU.
"Overall, I'm very happy with this performance," he said, "and I'm sure Bruce will be very happy when I speak to him tonight."