There was a pregame incident in Tennessee’s 64-50 win over No. 13 LSU at Thompson-Boling Arena. What exactly happened is unclear. No media members saw the event, but ESPN cameras caught part of the skirmish, mostly jawing between members of both teams and a few coaches.
“I don’t know what happened before the game,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I heard different things where something happened with a manager throwing the ball into the stands and one of our guys said ‘stop doing that.’ I don’t know the whole deal of it. Some people came together.”
What exactly happened, we probably won’t fully know. What we do know is that it sparked a Tennessee team that got revenge for three years plus of losses to Will Wade’s Tigers.
“I think that definitely set the tone,” Tennessee leading scorer Santiago Vescovi said. “It was just a reminder for us how the game went at LSU and helped us start with a lot more energy and fight for ourselves.”
And fight is exactly what Tennessee did. In the Vols’ four straight losses to LSU, the Tigers won by an average of 10.25 points with Grant Williams’ and Admiral Schofield’s overtime loss at LSU being the only by single digits.
Will Wade and LSU punked Tennessee in three of those four wins, playing more physical, aggressive and doing the nitty-gritty things to win.
Whether it was inevitable or the pregame incident sparked it, the Vols flipped the script on LSU. Tennessee jumped out to a 14-0 lead, holding the Tigers scoreless over six minutes into the game.
The Vols won the battle on the glass and equaled the Tigers in turnovers holding strong against LSU’s relentless pressure defense.
“It was the kind of game we knew it was going to be,” Barnes said. “It was a hard fought, physical game.”
The refusal to back down didn’t stay within the whistles with a pair of scuffles breaking out in the first half. Officials had to separate Uros Plavsic and LSU’s Alex Fudge just five minutes into the game after the two went at it following a Tennessee basket.
Then there was the consistent talking from both teams as they made their way to the locker room at halftime. It was no surprise to find Plavsic in the middle of both instances.
“Don’t worry about that,” Plavsic said of the pregame scuffle. “They do what they do. They wanted to win the fight. We wanted to win the basketball game and we did what we wanted to do.”
After a slight pause.
“I think we did both actually,” Plavsic said.
The 7-foot center hasn’t backed down from a fight in his three years in Knoxville. Zakai Zeigler explained it after the win at Vanderbilt as simple as saying, “he’s from Serbia” and Plavsic credited his tough upbringing for it.
But without radically improved play on the court, that attitude and toughness would be of little use for Tennessee. The Vols’ new starting center was fantastic again on Saturday, scoring 12 points on five-of-seven shooting while corralling six rebounds.
Since SEC play began, Plavsic is averaging 7.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. That’s far from spectacular, but combined with his improved defense it’s enough for him to comfortably play big minutes for Tennessee.
Tennessee had soul searching to do when it left Lexington a 28-point loser a week ago. Its won two straight SEC games for the first time this season due to the toughness it’s played with. The redshirt-junior is the shining example of that toughness.
“We knew they were going to bring the fight over here,” Plavsic said. “This is our house. We have to protect it. That’s all that we had tonight coming into this game. That was our mindset. I think we did a really good job of that.”
Tennessee did a really good job of that. The Vols are now 10-0 inside the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena heading into Wednesday’s showdown with Florida.