Jarnell Stokes had more to celebrate than his 20th birthday Tuesday night in Baton Rouge. He celebrated his 25th career double-double (15 points, 15 rebounds) and a resounding 68-50 defeat of LSU in Tennessee’s SEC opener.
“Jarnell did a great job – attacking the rim, being aggressive,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said on the post-game show. “If he missed a shot he stayed aggressive – continuing to attack off the dribble, posting up, rebounding the basketball. It was just a complete effort.”
Stokes was one of three Vols to play exceptionally well. Wing Jordan McRae hit 6 of 7 shots (3 of 3 from 3) en route to producing team highs in points (19) and assists (5). Point guard Antonio Barton got the Vols off to a fast start with 12 first-half points and finished with 14.
The win, Tennessee’s fourth in a row, bumped the Vols’ overall record to 10-4 and gave them a 1-0 SEC mark. LSU slips to 9-4 and 0-1 after scoring a season-low 50 points, 11 below the previous low-water mark of 61. Tennessee now has beaten LSU six times in a row. The Vols have won four times in succession at Baton Rouge.
Barton broke open Tuesday’s game almost single-handedly midway through the first half. With Tennessee up by one, he nailed three 3-pointers in a 21-6 explosion that turned a 17-16 lead into a 38-22 bulge. Barton finished the half 4 of 5 from the field, including 4 of 4 from beyond the arc.
“I thought the guys did a great job out of the gates on both ends of the floor,” Martin said. “We had more turnovers than I would like but I thought, offensively and defensively, we did a great job in the first half of setting the tone.”
Barton started 2013-14 on fire but cooled considerably after having a torn index fingernail surgically removed two weeks into the season. Now he’s back on his game, as evidenced by the fact he is 11 for 18 from 3-point range over the past three outings.
“I’m just coming into the game more confident and trusting my shot,” he said. “I’m not getting down on myself if I miss one or two in a row. I just keep shooting.”
Martin conceded that Tennessee generally does well when Barton plays well.
“I thought he did a great job,” the coach said. “He’s been shooting the ball really well, and that helps us. It opens everything else up.”
Leading 38-24 at the half, the Vols never allowed LSU to make a serious rally. A 3 by McRae bumped the lead to 17 points (46-29) with 15:24 left. LSU closed the gap to 12 but Josh Richardson put back a missed “and-1” free throw by Jeronne Maymon to complete a four-point possession that bumped the lead to 54-38 with 11:31 remaining.
A coast-to-coast drive by Barton widened the gap to 18 points (62-44) with 5:52 to play and two McRae foul shots gave Tennessee its biggest lead at 20 points (68-48) with 1:06 left.
Freshman Jordan Mickey paced LSU with 14 points. Superstar Johnny O’Bryant, who burned Tennessee for 24 points last season in Knoxville, managed just 11 this time.
“When Johnny gets it in the post, you want to get him off the block,” Martin said. “We did a great job with that. Now you want to scrape the post. When he starts dribbling, attack the post (with a double-team) and get the ball out of his hands. I thought our guys did an exceptional job with that.”
Tennessee shot 46.2 percent (24 of 52) from the field, including a sizzling 53.3 percent (8 of 15) from 3. The Vols hit 75 percent (12 of 15) from the foul line and outrebounded LSU 40-28. The only negative stat: Tennessee committed 16 turnovers, seven above its average.
Meanwhile, the Vol defense was air-tight, limiting LSU to 36.7 percent (22 of 60) from the field, including a frigid 14.3 percent (2 of 14) from beyond the arc.
Martin called Tuesday’s outing “a huge win for our guys and our program to beat a team of this magnitude and this talent level. To come into this environment and win the way we won is very impressive.”
Vol freshman Robert Hubbs III sat out his second game in a row due to a sore shoulder.
Tennessee returns to action Saturday, hosting Texas A&M at 6 p.m.