Let's not make this out to be more than it is.
LSU still has major issues that need to be addressed and quick, especially with a potential 1-2 punch of Texas A&M and Kentucky upcoming if the Tigers want to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet for one game, it was nice to see LSU put together a complete effort. There were struggles, sure, but it's been rare to see the Tigers command the big moments in a game over the last month. They did exactly that on Friday in Nashville, riding a 10-0 run to break open a tie game before sealing the 84-75 win with clutch free-throw shooting in the waning minutes.
It was a cliche, a total team win. Tim Quarterman really showed up, posting an 18-point, 7-assist, 5-rebound effort. He was smart while driving the lane, facilitated some spectacular alley-oops and was very active defensively. It was his best effort since the Texas A&M win a month ago and LSU needs two more like it this weekend.
Antonio Blakeney continues to shine down the stretch, and this time it was in service of a win. He dropped 22 points against just one turnover and was a rock at the free-throw line, going 9-for-9 from the stripe. He's just 10 shy of Chris Jackson's consecutive free-throws made record at LSU. While nowhere near the same freshman phenom Jackson was, Blakeney has made tremendous strides from some early struggles, and he was the offensive linchpin Friday.
Ben Simmons had an entirely ho-hum 15-8-1 line, but it was in a mere 24 minutes. 2 quick offensive fouls forced him out early in the first half and LSU never recovered from an 8-0 sprint with him on the bench. It was emblematic of LSU's first-half issues. The energy was there on defense but the discipline wasn't, leading to 13 first-half fouls and a whopping four players with at least two heading into the locker room. Credit Tennessee for taking advantage and earning a lead going into halftime.
LSU wouldn't have to play Aaron Epps, Elbert Robinson and Brandon Sampson in the second half, and that's ultimately why the game looked a lot different. It reverted back to an up-tempo style and the quality of play was the better for it. Tennessee pushed LSU hard, tying the game up at 59-all with 5 minutes to play.
We've seen this movie before. LSU didn't let it happen this time. The Tigers reeled off 10 consecutive points and actually made their free throws. LSU was 14 of 17 at the stripe in the final four minutes. That's the kind of sound play to close out a game fans and critics have been waiting to see. (Quick side note: Credit Johnny Jones for starting Josh Gray in this one. He hounded Armani Moore in this one and provided quick offensive sparks out the gate in each half.)
Of course, it might be too late, and it did come against a Vols team playing their 3rd game in about 45 hours. Still, LSU lost in eerily similar fashion (up two possessions late against Auburn) to a double-digit seed in the quarterfinals last season. This was at least a minor reversal of fortune for this program, which is in the SEC Tournament semifinals for just the third time in 10 years. LSU hasn't made the finals since 1993. Yes, you read that right.
At least for one day, there's small reasons for optimism. The task is still tall, as A&M has won six straight and is clearly the co-favorite with Kentucky to win this thing. The Aggies muscled past Florida in a hard-fought game, so they're not invincible here. The teams did split the regular-season series with each winning on their home floor.
What LSU did in beating Tennessee was nice, but it will need to be sharper on Saturday. We saw foul trouble doom LSU once at A&M this year. We've seen LSU rely too much on the jump shot against the Aggies already. The Tigers need a balanced effort with the same rugged defensive effort, because A&M is a deep team that can strangle the life out of one-dimensional opponents.
LSU will have to make it work, because the Tigers' NCAA hopes ride on this tournament. Win or it's NIT. The Tigers took the first step Friday, but it was the easy part. Let's keep those expectations at bay for now.