Ultimately, the 14th-ranked Vols averted a humiliating loss when Bobby Maze and Scotty Hopson hit two free throws each in the final 17 seconds to seal a 59-54 victory at Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge.
LSU, which might be the worst SEC team of the past decade, drops to 9-13 overall and 0-8 in conference play. Tennessee improves to 17-4 overall and 5-2 in league action.
The game followed the anticipated script for 36 minutes. Tennessee led the offensively inept Tigers 53-43 entering the final four minutes, then seemingly tried to give the game away.
Bo Spencer, who led LSU with 25 points, closed the gap to 53-45 by sinking a couple of free throws with 3:55 left. Tasmin Mitchell, who chipped in 13 points and 17 rebounds for the Tigers, made a layup that narrowed the deficit to 53-47 with 3:32 to go.
Tennessee's J.P. Prince missed but Spencer was called for an offensive foul. The Vols' Scotty Hopson was intercepted by Spencer, then fouled the Tiger guard. Spencer made both free throws, whittling the lead to 53-49 with 2:29 remaining.
Wayne Chism, who led Tennessee with 20 points, scored inside off an assist by Prince but Spencer answered with a baseline jumper that left UT up 55-51 with 1:40 to play.
Renaldo Woolridge missed a 3-pointer for Tennessee but Spencer misfired for LSU. Prince missed the front end of a one-and-one with 34.1 seconds left, then compounded the mistake by inexplicably fouling Mitchell as he launched a desperation 3-point try with 17.9 seconds left.
Mitchell sank all three free throws, trimming the deficit to 55-54. Maze hit both ends of a one-and-one at 16.6 seconds, however, and Hopson added two more foul shots with 3.7 seconds left to seal the deal.
Chism dominated inside, hitting 9 of 15 shots, but could've had a career game if his teammates had been more diligent about getting him the ball.
"Wayne played terrifically, and we got the ball inside to him just enough," UT coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "But if I don't call a play and force it in to him, it doesn't go in to him."
Tennessee's shot selection was horrendous. Discounting Chism, the rest of the team made just 13 of 40 shots (26 percent) from the field. Tennessee made a paltry 5 of 18 tries (27.8 percent) from beyond the arc.
"The guys are somewhat frustrated that they're not allowed to play with freedom," Pearl said. "But in providing them freedom to play, they've got to make good decisions and be accountable. We had some guys shoot pitiful percentages - percentages that just aren't acceptable ... tough 2s."
Hopson, Tennessee's leading scorer at 13 points per game, made just 2 of 10 field-goal tries. Woolridge made 1 of 6, Maze 1 of 5.
"We had a lot of guys shooting shots that we try to get opponents to shoot," Pearl grumbled. "And Wayne's shooting layups. He's shooting open shots.... We took way too many bad shots."
Chism wasn't the only bright spot for the Vols. Backup point guard Melvin Goins contributed 5 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists in 21 turnover-free minutes. He clearly outplayed starter Maze, who produced just 5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 turnovers in 19 minutes.
"I thought Melvin Goins defensively really, really made a difference in this game," Pearl said. "Eight defensive rebounds for Melvin Goins tells you the athleticism he has. I'm telling you: If Melvin is not there, we don't win this basketball game."
Even with Goins playing well, Tennessee was fortunate to win. The Vols shot just 40 percent (22 of 55) from the field and finished with more turnovers (12) than assists (10). All that saved the Big Orange was the fact LSU was even worse, shooting 30.5 percent (18 of 59) from the field and 21.7 percent (5 of 23) from 3.
Tennessee will fly home in the wee hours of this morning, hold a light practice this afternoon, then host South Carolina Saturday at 6. Pearl expects a really tough test.
"If we don't start playing better," he said, "this is over."