Tennessee avoided falling further behind in the SEC race thanks to a late shot by Scotty Hopson. With a difficult stretch of games looming, the Volunteers could use a road victory over LSU, the conference’s worst team, on Thursday night.
Fourteenth-ranked Tennessee (16-4, 4-2) was on the verge of its third straight loss - which would have matched the longest skid in coach Bruce Pearl’s five seasons - as it trailed by a point with 25 seconds left against Florida on Sunday.
Hopson, though, hit a 20-foot jumper four seconds later grabbed the rebound on the Gators’ final attempt in a 61-60 victory.
“We obviously needed a big shot, and coach had the confidence to put it in my hands so I stepped up and knocked it down,” said the sophomore guard, averaging a team-leading 13.6 points.
The victory kept the Vols within 1 1/2 games of Kentucky in the SEC East, but they play five of their next seven away from home. The stretch features back-to-back road games against No. 18 Vanderbilt on Feb. 9 and the fourth-ranked Wildcats on Feb. 13.
They also host South Carolina, which upset Kentucky last month, and travel to Florida on Feb. 23 before facing the Wildcats again Feb. 27 in Knoxville.
The makes the matchup with the Tigers, losers of seven straight and 10 of 11, all the more crucial if Tennessee wants to rally for its second SEC regular-season title in three seasons.
“We have to go to LSU on Thursday and find a way (to win) there,” Pearl said. “We’re not dead yet. These guys are continuing to make believers out of me. Hopefully, we’ll continue to get better.”
LSU (9-12, 0-7) led the SEC West with 74.8 points per game in 2008-09, but is averaging a league-worst 63.5 points this season. The Tigers have averaged 56.7 points on 39.5 percent shooting during their losing streak.
After scoring 38 in a loss at Alabama on Jan. 27, LSU had just 15 points in the first half three days later at Mississippi State en route to a 67-51 defeat.
“I tell them to continue to stay aggressive, positive and confident within themselves,” coach Trent Johnson said. “I’ve never been a coach that puts pressure on guys and worries about free throws or missed shots as long as they are taking good shots within our framework. We just need to stay positive.”
Tasmin Mitchell, second in the SEC with 17.9 points per game, was the only LSU player in double figures against the Bulldogs with 26. Mitchell is third in the conference with a 9.6 rebounding average.
LSU has not dropped eight in a row since Dec. 29, 2007-Jan. 26, 2008. The Tigers, winners of five of the past eight meetings with Tennessee, beat the Vols 79-73 in Knoxville last Jan. 28 as Thornton scored 29 points.
Wayne Chism had 19 points for Tennessee, which leads the series 56-42.
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