Tennessee was forced to face LSU on Saturday without its leading scorer and offensive sparkplug in Kevin Punter, who comes in at second in the SEC in points with 22.2 per game. It only makes sense, then, that in a season of interminable inconsistency, the Vols turned in their third-highest scoring total in SEC play without their main offensive weapon.
Tennessee (13-14, 6-8) pummeled the Tigers inside Thompson-Boling Arena, 81-65, using a collective performance in which four players scored in double figures and two more came just one shot away.
"We never made a big deal about it," Barnes said of Punter's absence. "We said, hey, all you guys have practicied all year long, you're here, and when your number is called you've got to be ready."
Armani Moore led the charge with his fifth double-double of the season, notching 17 points and 10 rebounds to complement seven assists, four steals and two blocks. Moore felt like he had to make a conscious decision to step up in place of the team's missing point guard.
"I just try to come out each and every night and play as hard as I can, no matter what I have to do," Moore said. "If that's scoring, rebounding the ball, being a playmaker, I just want to come out and make sure I leave everything out on the floor."
The senior did a little of all that and more, helping Tennessee acquire a lead for 35 minutes in the game that it continued to pile on until the final buzzer. Moore was joined by freshman Shembari Phillips, who scored 13 points in place of Punter, and Robert Hubbs, whose aggressive performance gave him 19 points and seven rebounds to end the night. Senior Derek Reese also stepped up to answer the call, playing solid defense and finishing with five rebounds.
“What can you say," Rick Barnes said. "Armani —look at his (stat) line. Shembari, Hubbs—I mean everyone. I told our guys if we had to give a game ball out, it would be to Derek Reese. A guy who has had to sit there behind a freshman this year, but when he was a called on, he really did a nice job for us. (It was) a great win."
Tennessee was also able to effectively limit Ben Simmons, the do-it-all LSU freshman projected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Simmons collected 21 points and nine rebounds, but never hit his stride and failed to distribute the ball as successfully as he normal does when headlining the offense. The Australian native, who came into the contest averaging 5.1 assists per game, mustered only two on Saturday.
"He can really pass the ball really well, so we just had to straighten the floor and just try to get our hands out and not let him see the open guys," Hubbs said. "When he takes his shot, just box him out and distrbute and rebound the ball. He's a good player and he can play multiple positions. That's his game."
Despite missing the game with a right ankle injury Barnes said characterized him as "day-to-day", Punter still made his presence known on the bench in the 16-point win.
"KP was great on the sidelines tonight and he was big in the locker room for us," Phillips said. "Him just talking in my ear, talking in everyone's ear and keeping us focused, it was big."
The win gives Tennessee victories over three of the top four current teams in the SEC standings (LSU, Kentucky and South Carolina). The Vols next head to Columbia for a road matchup with South Carolina. Barnes' squad has won just one game away from Knoxville all season.
"It can be (frustrating), but that's the game," Derek Reese said about his team's road struggles. "We still have to come with the same mindset if it is home or away. We just have to make sure we come together on an away game and put it together (when we’re) away. Playing the same way we play at home, that will help us a lot if we do the same thing."