published Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

UT Vols roll to fourth straight win in SEC opener against LSU

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin, left, talks with guard Jordan McRae in this file photo.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin, left, talks with guard Jordan McRae in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Tennessee waited until February to pick up its first road win in each of the past two men's basketball seasons.

Based on how they played Tuesday night, the Volunteers knew they couldn't afford to wait that long this season.

Big performances from Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes and some big shots from Antonio Barton during a decisive first-half run led Tennessee to a comfortable 68-50 win at LSU in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

"We've been playing good for a while now, so I feel like we were peaking at the right time as far as going into SEC play," Stokes said on ESPN's telecast after scoring 15 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in the Vols' fourth straight win.

"I feel like we're a totally different team than we were at the start of the season. That's all you can ask for right now around this time."

The hot shooting that spurred the Vols' three-game win streak continued in the first half Tuesday, as they took control of the game against a Tigers team that had lost to only Massachusetts and Memphis before Saturday's home upset by Rhode Island.

Tennessee (10-4) shot 54 percent from the field in the first half and hit seven 3-pointers. Barton, the Memphis transfer, was 4-of-4 from beyond the arc as the Vols turned a tight game into a 16-point lead.

"I thought the guys did a great job out the gates on both ends of the floor," coach Cuonzo Martin said on the Vol Network radio broadcast. "We had more turnovers than we would like, but I thought offensively and defensively we did a tremendous job in the first half of setting the tone."

Barton's third triple of the half gave the Vols a 30-20 lead, and consecutive treys by Barton and McRae capped an 18-4 run that put them up 38-22 before Anthony Hickey's jump shot just ahead of the halftime buzzer.

During a six-game stretch in which Tennessee went just 3-3, Barton made just two of 16 3-point attempts, but he's hit 11 in the Vols' past three games.

"I'm just coming into the game more confident and trusting my shot, not getting down on myself if I miss maybe one or two shots in a row," Barton told the Vol Network after scoring 14 points.

Barton, who's battled knee and finger injuries this season, added that's he's "100 percent right now."

"He's been shooting the really well," Martin said, "and I think that helps, because it opens everything else up."

McRae scored 19 points, his scoring average in league play last season, on only seven shots. He missed just one field-goal try but knocked down all three of his 3-point attempts and all four free throws to cap a nearly perfect shooting night. Tennessee's top scorer chipped in five assists, too.

"They're not a selfish group," Martin said. "They're good guys. They get along with each other. All those guys hang out together. I think early we just didn't have a good chemistry.

"Right now guys are playing some good basketball."

Tennessee's defense stifled the Tigers, holding the hosts to 37 percent shooting. LSU's starting frontcourt duo of Johnny O'Bryant III and freshman Jordan Mickey combined for 25 points on 12-of-21 shooting, but the rest of the Tigers made just 10 of 39 shots. Anthony Stringer, who was averaging 12.5 points per game this season, did not score.

Though LSU's full-court press forced Tennessee in 16 turnovers -- the Vols were averaging only nine per game -- the Tigers hardly made a dent in the deficit. LSU never got closer than a dozen points in the second half, and Barton's coast-to-coast layup pushed Tennessee's lead to 62-44 with 5:52 on the clock.

"It's us growing as a team," Barton said. "In the beginning, it was my first time playing with these guys on an official level. We had to adjust, so as the season goes on we're going to jell more and get more together.

"This was a good game. Right now it's behind us. We're going to come in and watch film and get prepared for Texas A&M."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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