Before Tennessee faces a pair of daunting tasks to open the New Year, it has a chance to close out 2008 on a positive note.
The No. 14 Volunteers look to run their home winning streak to 37 games when they host Louisiana-Lafayette on Monday night.
December has brought many challenges for Tennessee (8-2), which has managed to hold its own for the most part this month against a tough schedule that concludes with a winnable game against Louisiana-Lafayette (4-6), losers of four in a row to the Vols.
Though Tennessee lost by 16 at Temple on Dec. 13, it defeated then-No. 25 Marquette three days later and edged pesky Belmont 79-77 on Dec. 20 in its most recent contest. After facing the Ragin’ Cajuns, things don’t get easier for the Vols, who travel to face defending national champion Kansas on Saturday and meet No. 7 Gonzaga for the second time this season on Jan. 7 in Knoxville three days before opening SEC play at Georgia.
While Louisiana-Lafayette doesn’t seem to be a major challenge, Tennessee must improve on its overall effort from its contest with Belmont. The Vols played well in stretches, but needed a key late 3-pointer from Bobby Maze and three missed free throws by the Bruins in the final 7.9 seconds to hold on.
“We knew this team would be tough,” said forward Tyler Smith, who had a season-high 23 points with eight rebounds versus Belmont.
Though the Vols came out ahead, Tennessee shot 8-for-29 from 3-point range and allowed Belmont senior guard Alex Renfroe to score 30 points.
“I saw some inconsistencies by us as a team, and we will continue to see some of those,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “We are not able to dictate the tempo in a game.”
Tennessee, which is 27-0 under Pearl against non-conference opponents at Thompson-Boling Arena, might be able to do that against Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns have lost two in a row and have not beat a ranked team since a 79-76 win over then-No. 12 Mississippi State in 2002.
The Vols are 7-1 versus Louisiana-Lafayette and won 98-70 over the Cajuns on Nov. 30, 2007. Smith had 22 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in that contest.
Smith, averaging a team-leading 17.6 points, topped the 20-point mark for the third time this season against Belmont.
Louisiana-Lafayette looks to bounce back from a 56-54 loss to Sam Houston State on Dec. 21 in the team’s most recent contest. Junior Ryan McCoy scored 21 points, but the Cajuns blew a nine-point halftime lead and lost on Ashton Mitchell’s jumper with 3 seconds left in the game.
Sophomore Travis Bureau had 14 points, below his team-leading 16.8 average per game. Guard Chris Gradnigo added 10 versus Sam Houston and had 15 in last season’s loss to Tennessee.