The throne atop the SEC just got a bit more crowded.
The No. 13 LSU Tigers pulled off an upset win at home on Saturday, taking down No. 5 Tennessee in overtime in front of a sold out crowd at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. The win, powered by late-game heroics and timely free throw shooting, makes a three-way for first in the SEC standings.
Saturday’s victory for Will Wade’s side marked the second time this season it had beaten a team ranked in the Top 5 of the AP Poll. The first, of course, was when they beat Kentucky on a buzzer-beating tip-in on Feb. 12 in Rupp Arena.
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LSU (22-5; 12-2 SEC) won this game for several reasons, one of which was because of its stellar performance at the charity stripe. LSU shot 24-of-31 from the free throw line, a 77.4 percent clip.
While Tennessee (24-3; 12-2 SEC) out-rebounded the Tigers and had three scorers in double-figures, it didn’t make the big shots when they counted.
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Smart, Mays lead the way late
To beat the Vols, the Tigers needed overtime, and some incredible playmaking from Skylar Mays and Ja’vonte Smart.
Mays helped LSU get to overtime with some big plays in the final moments of regulation. With about a minute and 15 seconds left, he nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game up. On the Tigers’ next possession, Mays drew a foul and swished a pair of free throws to give the Tigers their first lead of the second half. The junior 6-foot-4 guard finished the game with 23 points, three rebounds and two assists.
Smart grabbed the clutch-baton from Mays and ran with it in overtime. He connected on a lay-up in traffic to give LSU a lead with 59 seconds left, and then with just 0.6 seconds left, he secured a defensive rebound and drew a foul. The freshman hit both of his free throws to give LSU the victory. Smart notched a career-high 29 points and also tallied five rebounds, five assists and three steals.
LSU defense was opportunistic
Aside from Smart and Mays’ high-scoring performances, one of the major reasons LSU was able to pull out the victory was because of its defense.
While Tennessee’s shooting percentages were decent for the game — 44.8 from the floor and 36.4 from behind the arc — LSU locked down in overtime and forced the Vols into four misses, three of which were from outside.
The Vols also turned the ball over 14 times and the Tigers turned those free possessions into offense, totaling 17 points off Vols’ turnovers. LSU also had 13 offensive rebounds and 17 points off second chances.
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LSU is now tied at the top of the SEC standings with Kentucky and Tennessee. If the standings stay the same through the end of the season, LSU will take the crown, as the Tigers have wins over the Wildcats and Volunteers.
Remaining on the Tigers’ regular season slate are all unranked opponents in Texas A&M, Alabama, Florida and Vanderbilt. However, the Tigers game against the Gators won’t be a walk in the park. It’s in Gainesville and Florida has already beaten LSU once this season.
As for the Vols, they also have four games remaining, three of which are against unranked Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn. The fourth is in Knoxville against No. 4 Kentucky. Like this game, that match-up will have a lot of an impact on the SEC heading into conference tournament season.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.