The win improves LSU's record to 16-4 overall and 4-1 in SEC play. The loss drops the Vols to 12-7 and 3-2.
Tennessee trailed by 14 points (59-45) with 14:26 to go but rallied frantically once freshman Emmanuel Negedu entered the lineup. Negedu scored six points in a 15-2 explosion that pulled the Vols within a point at 61-60.
Tennessee took its first lead of the game at 69-67 on a Wayne Chism 3-pointer with 4:44 to go but the Vols couldn't close the deal. Marcus Thornton hit a driving 6-footer and a driving three-point play as LSU went up 74-71.
A Chism follow shot narrowed the gap to 74-73, then Thornton missed the front end of a one-and-one. Chris Johnson blocked a Chism layup attempt on the defensive end, then hit both ends of a one-and-one on the offensive end as the lead swelled to 76-73.
"We got the ball to Wayne under the basket, and you just can't get it any closer than that," Pearl said on his post-game show, "but the kid, Johnson, made a really good play."
Tyler Smith foiled UT's ensuing possession by stepping on the baseline, then LSU's Bo Spencer hit a free throw for a 77-73 lead with 33.5 seconds left. Garrett Temple intercepted a Scotty Hopson pass, then Thornton sealed the Vols' doom by nailing two free throws with 15.5 seconds left.
Thornton finished with 29 points and fellow guard Bo Spencer added 15 to pace the Tigers. Johnson dominated inside with 14 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks. Tasmin Mitchell contributed 10 points.
Chism scored 19 points to pace Tennessee but sank just 5 of 14 shots. The 6-9 junior did most of his damage from beyond the arc, where he was 4 of 6. Negedu added 11 in 15 sterling relief minutes. Preseason All-American Tyler Smith made just 2 of 7 field-goal tries – 1 of 5 from 3 – and finished with almost as many turnovers (5) as points (9).
The loss was Tennessee's second home-floor heartbreaker in a row. Smith missed a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds as the Vols fell 54-52 to Memphis on Saturday. The block of Chism's late layup proved crucial on Wednesday night.
"The last couple of games we've not closed out we've gone inside – to Tyler and to Wayne," Pearl noted. "I like to get the ball in our best players' hands down the stretch, but when our best players are inside players it's difficult."
Noting that Chism and Smith made just one two-point basket each during the game, Pearl added: "The way to remedy that a little bit is to have better inside-out offense. We may need 3-balls.
"The problem is, Wayne is our best inside-out shooter. He had four (3s), Tyler had one and Emmanuel had one, so our big guys had seven of our eight 3s. So, unless you want to post them up and have them throw the ball to themselves on the perimeter, it's pretty difficult to run inside-out offense."