5 Observations: Vols Knock Off LSU 81-65

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    With no Kevin Punter (out with foot injury), a banged-up Devon Baulkman and the most talented player in the nation in Ben Simmons in town, Saturday evening looked like quite the challenge for the alternate Smokey gray-clad Vols.

    But Tennessee responded – pulling off an 81-65 victory in which they led almost the entire way. Here are five takeaways from the big win for Tennessee:

    1. Moore steps up: Kevin Punter has been the undoubted leader of this team on the court all year, but with him sidelined for the evening, it was fellow senior Armani Moore, who was coming off one of his career-best performances at Kentucky (21 points, 11 rebounds), who took over. Moore, who guarded Simmons for much of the evening on the defensive end, flirted with a triple-double – finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, whiles adding four steals, two blocks and committing just one turnover in 36 minutes.

    “He had to do a lot of things for us,” Rick Barnes said of Moore. “We needed him to guard Ben Simmons at times and help Shembari (Phillips) a lot. He had to do that a lot.”

    2. Containing Simmons: Much of the blame, rightfully so in my opinion, will be directed towards LSU coach Johnny Jones for not making the Tigers get the ball to the phenom freshman more, but regardless, Tennessee did an admirable job of not letting arguably the nation’s most talented player take over the game. Simmons, who didn’t start the game and missed the opening minutes for academic reasons, finished the game with a respectable line of 21 points and nine rebounds, but also turned it over eight times.

    “Five guys guarding him (was) what we wanted, because he’s a terrific passer,” Barnes said. “We wanted to fill up the lane, and try to take away as much space from him as we could. We were ready to double more.”

    3. Home sweet home: Credit the crowd, with an announced season-high attendance of just under 20,000 fans, for coming out to support a team that came into this game 12-14 and coming off a couple tough losses on the road. The fans were into it all night and the team seemed to feed off of that, just as it has all season. That’s been one of the few constants for the Vols this season: regardless how poor the product has looked on the road at times, they have found ways to play well in Knoxville. The Vols moved to 12-2 on the season at home with the only losses coming to Vanderbilt and then-No. 21 Texas A&M.

    4. Team effort: I’m certainly not going to argue that it’s ever a good thing to lose Kevin Punter, but you could see it light a fire under some other players who knew they wouldn’t be bailed out by UT’s leading scorer on Saturday. The enigmatic Robert Hubbs III stepped up with 19 points and seven boards in 36 turnover-free minutes. Derek Reese, who Barnes said deserved a game ball, was a strong presence on defense, and Shembari Phillips, who handled the point for much of the evening, certainly did some good things as well on his way to 13 points and four assists.

    In total, UT had six players score at least eight points, three players with at least four assists and six players grab at least four rebounds. The Vols certainly want Punter, who Barnes said is day-to-day going forward, back as soon as possible, but it was nice that UT didn’t have the stand-and-watch-KP mentality that sets in at times.

    5. Vols keep fighting: I’ve written the Vols off several times this year, figuring that all the roster deficiencies had caught up to them and that they simply wouldn’t be able to compete with some of the better teams in the league. And while this team has certainly had some clunkers (see TCU, Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt and others), the Vols have also now knocked off four of the top five teams in the SEC in Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina and Florida.

    Barnes needs to figure out these road woes. Tennessee has been one of the worst teams in the nation away from home. But if he can, you can clearly see why there’s a lot of optimism that he’ll be able to get the Vols back to tournament contention in the coming years.

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