Long-range Vols rock

Three days after a gritty Rhode Island team marched out of Baton Rouge with an upset, the LSU men’s basketball team faced a basic choice.

Would the Tigers bounce back for their Southeastern Conference opener?

Or do old habits — poor communication, a stagnant offense and early sluggishness — die hard?

It was more the latter Tuesday night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center as Tennessee defeated LSU 68-50.

The Tigers’ response against the veteran-laden Volunteers (10-4, 1-0) was the program’s worst loss in a conference opener in five years. Last season, LSU lost its first four SEC games.

“We can’t go do what we did last year,” guard Anthony Hickey said. “We’ve just go step up. Us who have been here, we’ve got to own up and lead this team.”

Coach Johnny Jones hinted changes might be coming for the Tigers (9-4, 0-1).

“Unfortunately, we let guys get minutes and places, and we’ve just got to make sure those are earned,” Jones said. “If you want to play and compete and get some of those minutes, you’ll have a little bit different effort.”

The Vols used an 18-6 burst over the closing seven minutes of the first half for a 38-24 lead.

It exposed the Tigers’ lack of vocal leaders and a slipping focus.

Antonio Barton connected on a 3-pointer with 6:26 left in the first half for a 23-18 UT lead, but it was fueled by slow defensive rotation.

At the other end, LSU, which shot 36.8 percent, got a rough synopsis of its night offensively after Shavon Coleman missed a layup.

The Tigers’ frontcourt duo of Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey missed two putbacks, and then O’Bryant’s jumper thumped off the back rim as the Tigers clanked eight of 12 shots to close the half.

Three minutes later, Barton, who finished with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, hit a 3-pointer on the left wing for a 30-20 lead and 3:11 until the break.

The barrage, which saw the Vols hit 7-of-11 behind the arc in the first half, continued 90 seconds later when Barton corralled a loose ball saved by LSU and canned a 3-pointer on the left wing.

“When our guards are making shots from the perimeter, we are really tough to beat,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Now we have the perimeter and the inside going hand in hand.”

A trip later, Jordan McCrae, who scored a game-high 19 points, knocked down a 3-pointer of his own for a 38-22 lead and 36.1 seconds remaining in the first half.

With that, Tennessee, which shot 46.2 percent, effectively put the game out of reach.

“Guys just aren’t communicating,” Jones said of the struggles defending the 3-point arc. “We didn’t do a really good job of talking. If we’re coming back in transition and someone’s taking someone else’s guy, we’re not doing a good job of rotating.”

That’s even more irksome considering the LSU staff featured the issue prominently in the scouting report.

“We’ve talked about it,” Jones said. “But then we don’t take the scouting report to the game.”

It was a emblematic of a game played at Tennessee’s grinding pace, one at which LSU’s halfcourt offense bogged down and stagnated. “We’ve got a little bit of movement toward the end, but it was probably too late,” Hickey said.

“We were down a little bit. We’ve got to come ready. We were too close. We’ve got to spread the floor.”

Mickey paced the Tigers with 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting, while O’Bryant chipped in eight points to go with seven rebounds.

But LSU’s guard duo of Andre Stringer and Hickey, who have struggled in hitting 32 percent from the floor over the past three games, again flailed.

Stringer, who went 0-of-5, didn’t get up a shot until the waning minutes of the first half and was held scoreless for the first time in his career.

“Our guards didn’t really hit shots tonight, and that hurt us from the outside,” O’Bryant said. “They can really shot the ball. Anytime they make shots, we’re a better team.”

Rolling out its press five minutes into the second half failed to stymie Tennessee.

The Tigers forced 15 turnovers, but turned them into just 10 points.

Every time LSU whittled the gap within 12, there was a layup on the press-break or a putback on the offensive glass to halt a rally.

After their guards got separation, Tennessee forwards Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes went to work in the lane as the Vols hammered LSU by a 42-28 margin on the boards.

Maymon, who had nine points and five rebounds, blotted out O’Bryant in the second half, limiting him to three points after the break. Meanwhile, a slow-starting Jarnell Stokes finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds.

Again, LSU was beaten to loose balls, failed to corral tips around the rim and didn’t show the grit coveted by Jones as the toughness borne out of rebounding drills in practice failed to translate.

“You’ve got to do it every second,” Jones said. “That’s something we’ve got to condition and make sure you understand.”

Yanking minutes and scratching out the lineup might be in order for Jones.

Leave it to his point guard, though, to hit on the deeper issue.

It don’t matter about the lineup,” Hickey said. “We’ve got to come ready to play.”