AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jordan McRae finally got a chance to celebrate a noteworthy individual performance.
McRae scored a career-high 34 points and led Tennessee’s torrid 3-point attack Tuesday night as the Volunteers defeated LSU 82-72 for their fourth consecutive victory. Each of the previous four times McRae scored at least 20 points this season, Tennessee had lost.
“I feel like when I was scoring high (earlier), I wasn’t really getting my teammates involved and they weren’t really playing well,” McRae said. “To see everybody playing well and we’re all jelling — and to score that much and to win — it all feels good.”
McRae made all six of his 3-point attempts and shot 13 of 18 overall. Tennessee (15-10, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) shot 10 of 15 from 3-point range as a team against an LSU squad that entered the night with the SEC’s best 3-point percentage defense (.290).
Tennessee has made 75 percent (15 of 20) of its 3-point attempts over its last two games. The Vols had shot just 28.6 percent (102 of 357) from 3-point range through their first 23 games. McRae entered Tuesday having made just 29.8 percent (31 of 104) of his attempts from beyond the arc.
None of those numbers mattered on this night.
“We’ve got that same sheet, and I’ve got to go check and make sure it’s right,” LSU coach Johnny Jones quipped after the game. “We thought percentage-wise it would eventually catch up and balance out and hopefully turn in our favor. Tonight, as confident as (McRae) is, it just opened up for him.”
Trae Golden added 20 points and eight assists for Tennessee, which continued to rebound from a season-long offensive slump. Jarnell Stokes had 13 points and 11 rebounds for his seventh double-double in his last eight games.
Tennessee shot 57.4 percent overall (27 of 47) Tuesday, three days after the Vols shot 58 percent (29 of 50) in an 88-58 rout of Kentucky.
“This is the team we thought we could be offensively,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Johnny O’Bryant had 24 points and eight rebounds for LSU (15-9, 6-7). Anthony Hickey had 14 points and Malik Morgan added 12 points. O’Bryant and Morgan both fouled out.
The game featured an intriguing matchup between Stokes and O’Bryant, two of the SEC’s top big men. Although O’Bryant won that individual matchup, LSU wouldn’t win the game.
Stokes believed Tennessee’s superior balance made the difference.
“They fed off (O’Bryant) a lot, but this team, we have about three or four guys who can score,” Stokes said. “That’s hard to guard. You can’t focus on one man.”
McRae proved particularly hard to guard. His 6-of-6 performance from 3-point range tied a school single-game record for the most 3-point baskets without a miss.
The 6-foot-5 junior said his 3-point shooting has improved in part because of Golden’s emergence. McRae, a natural shooting guard, was forced into the role of point guard after Golden fell out of the starting lineup and later got injured. Now that Golden is healthy and back in the starting lineup, McRae has returned to his more customary position.
“I really think I started to struggle shooting 3s when I was trying to create my own shot off the dribble,” McRae said. “Now that Trae’s playing how he is, he’s penetrating and I’m getting open shots and I’m getting my feet set more.”
Just about every time LSU threatened, McRae responded.
After LSU rallied from 13 points down and cut the lead to 51-45 on O’Bryant’s layup with 13:06 left, McRae connected on a 3-pointer to stop the Tigers’ momentum. McRae added a thunderous dunk a couple of minutes later.
When LSU reduced the deficit to six again on Anthony Hickey’s steal and layup with 5:46 left, McRae calmly buried another 3-pointer. After LSU made it a six-point margin once more on a Hickey 3-pointer with 4:11 remaining, McRae scored on Tennessee’s next possession. McRae then pulled down a defensive rebound and got fouled by O’Bryant, knocking the LSU big man out of the game with 3:21 left.
Tennessee’s lead wouldn’t drop below seven again the rest of the night.
“We just did a bad job of getting stops when we needed them,” O’Bryant said. “We’d get stops and get stops to get back in the game, and then we’d give up a 3. That really hurt us. To keep getting momentum and then to let it get away, that really hurt us tonight.”
LSU was playing from behind most of the night.
Tennessee shot 59.3 percent (16 of 27) over the first 20 minutes to grab a 40-30 halftime lead. McRae and Golden led the way by scoring 14 points each while shooting a combined 11 of 16 before halftime.
The Vols stayed hot from beyond the arc in the second half. The Vols made their first three 3-point attempts of the second half, including two by McRae in the first two minutes. McRae’s first 3-pointer of the second half gave Tennessee a 43-30 advantage.
LSU clawed its way back into the game by relying on second-chance points and O’Bryant’s inside presence, but the Tigers had no answers for McRae.
“Today was just one of his nights,” Morgan said. “It looked like he didn’t miss. He was just in a zone.”