Don't look now, but the Tennessee Vols have transformed themselves from road kill to road warriors.
After losing their first seven road games of 2011-12, they won their third in the last four outings Wednesday night, beating LSU 74-69 in overtime at the Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge.
The victory concluded a 7-1 February that lifts the Vols to 17-13 overall and 9-6 in SEC play, assuring them of winning records in each category. The triumph also keeps the Big Orange's flickering hopes of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament alive. The loss drops LSU to 17-12 overall and 7-8 in league action.
Tennessee never led during regulation, finally taking its first lead of the game at 63-60 on a Cameron Tatum 3-pointer at the start of overtime. LSU pulled even at 63, then Trae Golden turned a drive into a three-point play that gave the Vols the lead for good at 66-63 with 1:27 left in the extra period.
The Tigers closed to 66-65 on a Johnny O'Bryant layup with 1:04 remaining but Tatum scored on a five-foot runner as the lead grew to 68-65 with 34.4 seconds remaining. Golden rebounded a missed 3-point try by LSU 7-footer Justin Hamilton, then drained six of six foul shots in the final 17 seconds to seal the victory.
"We got out of the gate slow," Vol head man Cuonzo Martin said on the post-game show, "but the second half we stepped up big."
Mid-term freshman Jarnell Stokes hit 9 of 10 shots and led Tennessee with 18 points.
"Jarnell played really well," Martin said. "He scored the ball, was aggressive and physical. It was probably the best job he's done all year of posting. He also wanted the ball. We were running plays for him, and he stepped up big for us."
Golden made just 2 of 9 shots from the field but chipped in 14 points by going 9 of 9 from the foul line. Jeronne Maymon produced all of his 14 points in the second half and Stokes got 12 of his 18 after intermission as Tennessee dominated inside over the game's final 25 minutes.
Asked what he told the team at halftime, Martin replied: "I just more or less said 'Bottom line: Their big guys are outplaying us. Our big guys haven't stepped up, haven't played well, so we have to do something about it.' Our big guys in the second half made the adjustments they needed to for us to win the game."
Hamilton scored 17 points, Anthony Hickey 12 and O'Bryant 11 for the Tigers, who led by 15 points (31-16) in the first half before letting the Vols back in the game.
After starting SEC play 1-4, Tennessee has won 8 of its last 10 league games with only Saturday's showdown against visiting Vanderbilt left before the conference tournament next week in New Orleans.
Basically, Tennessee's Wednesday night performance could be summed up this way: It played a terrible first half, a quality second half and an excellent overtime. No one better illustrated this trend than Golden, who committed 6 turnovers in the opening half as the Vols went to the break down 35-24. He committed zero turnovers thereafter, however, and scored nine of Tennessee's 14 overtime points. Golden wound up playing 41 of the game's 45 minutes.
"He did a good job of running the team; that's why we played well the second half," Martin said. "Trae did a good job of controlling tempo, getting to the free-throw line but also penetrating and finding the shooters. When he's penetrating at that level, we're tough to defend as a team because you have so many moving parts."
After shooting 52.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3 in Saturday's win at South Carolina, Tennessee shot 51.0 percent (25 of 49) from the field and 55.6 percent (5 of 9) from 3 at LSU. The Vols also drained 86.4 percent (19 of 22) from the foul line. Suddenly, the Big Orange is strokin' it on the road.
"Man, there's nothing better than getting a road win," Martin said. "I love road wins. They show a level of toughness, a level of togetherness, a passion for each other. Our guys played with passion, with toughness and with togetherness."