The Vol Historian
BATON ROUGE, La. - Tennessee's JaJuan Smith stole the game from LSU on Saturday afternoon.
The senior, battling the flu and a 100-plus degree temperature, stole the basketball from Marcus Thornton with 14 seconds left and scored on a breakaway layup with 11 seconds left in a 47-45 victory.
The Tigers came within a fraction of a second of forcing overtime, but replays showed Chris Johnson's dunk off an Alex Farrer miss came after time expired.
Smith's only basket of the game, however, was right on time.
"I told Coach, 'I think I've got one in me,' " said Smith, who played just 22 minutes before re-entering the game with 19 seconds left. "I hadn't done anything all night. I took a chance; I'm a risky player, I like to take chances.''
LSU (8-14, 1-7 SEC) was playing its first game under interim coach Butch Pierre. LSU fired John Brady on Friday.
Chris Lofton led No. 7 UT (21-2, 8-1) with 15 points and Tyler Smith added 12 in front of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center crowd of 10,165.
"We didn't deserve to win this game,'' Lofton said. "Like Coach (Bruce Pearl) said, we might be the most overrated team in the country.''
Pearl, who watched his Vols nearly squander a 12-point second-half lead, said he was pleased with the effort but not the execution.
"Because we're giving such a great effort on defense, turning over LSU 22 times and getting 22 offensive rebounds … we're resting on offense,'' Pearl said. "We had too many guys standing around watching Tyler and Chris and waiting for them to win the game for us offensively.''
Pearl made no secret of his displeasure in his post-game talk with the team; his voice could be heard through the arena's concrete walls.
"I wanted them to look at this like a loss,'' Pearl said. "You want to make progress; we want to get better. We won the game, but we didn't get any better.''
First things first, the Vols might want to try to get healthy.
In addition to Smith, whose illness forced the team to delay its travel to Baton Rouge, point guard Jordan Howell had missed the past two practices with an illness.
Lofton, who missed Thursday's practice while attending his grandmother's funeral in Maysville, Ky., was battling a challenge of his own - LSU defensive ace Garrett Temple.
"I just didn't want to force things today because he is such a great defender,'' said the 6-foot-2 Lofton, who had averaged 10 points in three previous meetings against LSU when guarded by the 6-6 Temple. "I tried to pick my spots.''
Other than JaJuan Smith's steal and layup in the closing seconds, Lofton's NBA-range 3-pointer with 3:37 remaining was UT's only field goal during the final 10 minutes.
A Tyler Smith 3-pointer with 10:08 remaining had boosted the lead to 42-32.
That's when LSU started its comeback, scoring off three consecutive put-back baskets to cut the lead to 42-38 with 7:34 remaining.
A Thornton drive with 3:55 left made it 42-40 and forced Pearl to call timeout and set up Lofton's 3-pointer.
"Tonight, if it wasn't drawn up, it wasn't going in,'' said Pearl, whose team shot a season-low 31.7 percent from the field. "Every basket was out of timeout, or a play-call, or a side-set. We just got nothing, very little out of continuity, very little out of the fast break.
"Their ability to block shots was a factor, and our inability to score around the basket was frustrating. Free-throw shooting is a terrific problem.''
The Tigers' nine blocked shots were the most by a UT opponent this season and the Vols' 4-of-15 (26.7 percent) effort from the free-throw line was easily the lowest of the year.
"I wouldn't consider it a moral victory,'' said Pierre, whose team tied the game at 45 on Johnson's three-point play with 1:15 remaining. "The guys gave tremendous effort holding this team to 47 points, which is their lowest total on the season.''
The 47 points is the second-lowest total of Pearl's three-year tenure with the Vols behind a 56-44 loss to Butler in last season's preseason NIT and the fewest points in a UT win since the Vols scored a 47-46 win over Kentucky in 1999.
The Vols return to action at 8 p.m. Wednesday when they put their 28-game home-court win streak against Arkansas (17-5, 6-2).
The Razorbacks and Kentucky are the only two teams to beat the Pearl-coached Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena, both emerging victorious in 2006.