KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s bench strength enabled the Volunteers to survive the temporary absence of their leading scorer.
Once Grant Williams returned from an injury, the Vols breezed to their fourth straight victory.
James Daniel III scored 17 points off the bench Wednesday night as No. 18 Tennessee trounced LSU 84-61.
With nine games remaining in the regular season, Tennessee (16-5, 6-3 SEC) already has matched its 2016-17 win total.
“I think this team can be one of the best in the country, if not the best,” said Williams, who scored 16 points despite spending much of the first half in the locker room. “We can compete with anybody in the country, especially when we’re playing the way we’re supposed to.”
Tennessee went 16-16 last year and failed to earn an NCAA Tournament or NIT bid for a third straight season. That streak appears likely to end this year, thanks in part to the Vols’ improved bench.
During this winning streak, Tennessee has outscored opponents 134-48 in bench points. In three of its last four games, Tennessee has gotten more points from its bench than its starting five. Tennessee’s reserves outscored LSU’s 44-8.
“We really just try to come in and change the tempo and energy of the game,” Daniel said of Tennessee’s reserves. “I really feel when we come in, the game gets a lot faster. We get after guys out there.”
Jordan Bone and Lamonte’ Turner scored 12 points each for Tennessee, and Bone also had eight assists with no turnovers. Duop Reath scored 21 and Randy Onwuasor had 10 for LSU, which lost for the fifth time in its last six games.
Tennessee got a scare less than two minutes into the game when Williams landed awkwardly after attempting to get a rebound, causing the sophomore forward to walk slowly off the floor.
The Vols showcased their depth by outscoring LSU 26-17 while Williams was out of the game. Tennessee led 28-21 when Williams returned to action with 7:25 left in the first half and stayed ahead the rest of the way.
“When they don’t have their best player, you should be able to hang in there a little bit better than that,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “When he came back, they were up (seven), so it’s going to be a long march to climb back in from that point.”
Tennessee also exploited LSU’s lack of depth.
Wade announced Monday that two reserves were suspended for one game each and two more were taking leaves of absence, leaving the Tigers with only seven available scholarship players to face Tennessee.
Guard Brandon Rachal and forward Wayde Sims were suspended for Wednesday’s game. Sims has made eight starts this season, but none in conference play. Rachal has been coming off the bench all season.
Forward Galen Alexander won’t play the rest of the season and is exploring a transfer. Forward Mayan Kiir has taken a leave of absence for the rest of the semester, but has the option of returning to the team next season.
Wade said after the game that their absences didn’t impact Wednesday’s result.
LSU: Freshman Tremont Waters continued his recent slump by shooting 1 of 9 and scoring seven points. Waters entered the night with a team-high 15.2 points per game, but he has scored in double figures just once in his last five games. He has shot 2 of 16 over his last two games.
Tennessee: Bone remained in the starting lineup even as Turner and Daniel were outplaying him recently. Bone backed up the staff’s confidence in him with a big performance against LSU. Bone’s eight assists matched a career high he set last season against Appalachian State. Bone had scored a total of seven points in his last four games, so his 12-point outburst against LSU was an encouraging sign.
Tennessee outscored LSU 36-9 from 3-point range. Tennessee shot 12 of 25 and LSU was 3 of 19 from beyond the arc.
Tennessee already has its highest ranking since December 2010 and should continue to rise next week if it follows this victory up by beating Mississippi on Saturday.
LSU hosts Arkansas on Saturday.
Tennessee hosts Mississippi on Saturday.
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