By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
LSU put in a record-breaking offensive performance in its 2016-17 SEC opener.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, so did Vanderbilt.
The Commodores popped in 16 3s, just one fewer than LSU’s school-record 17, and scored 30 points off 15 Tiger turnovers to build a 20-point lead, and they held on late for a 96-89 win in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“Most nights when you score 89 points, you’re going to win the basketball game,” said LSU head coach Johnny Jones.
Thursday wasn’t most nights. LSU (8-4, 0-1 SEC) was without forward Craig Victor, who was dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules, Jones said in an release just before the game. The team found out earlier in the day during shoot-around, but Jones said he didn’t think it affected his team’s focus.
“We knew that this could possibly be a point we would get to,” said Jones, who suspended Victor for the season’s first three games for, again, a violation of team rules. “I don’t think that was a distraction for them at the end of the day.”
Antonio Blakeney led the charge for LSU with 24 points and seven rebounds, and Wayde Sims scored 14 points and grabbed 6 rebounds off the bench, but the Tigers’ starting frontcourt combined for just 8 points and 6 rebounds with 9 turnovers in the loss, as Vanderbilt (6-6, 1-0 SEC) connected on 31-of-58 shots and never trailed in the game’s final 36 minutes.
“I thought coming into the night our guys realized the sense of urgency we needed to play with,” said Jones. “We knew the type of defense that needed to be played. We allowed them to get comfortable. They hit some shots against us and became a very confident team.”
Vanderbilt’s backcourt alternated dominant halves. Riley Lachance scored 19 of his team-high 24 in the second half, including a dagger fadeaway three with two minutes to play, while Matthew Fisher-Davis poured in 14 of his 23 in the first half, as the visitors built their commanding lead.
After Skylar Mays (11 points, 3-for-3 on 3-pointers) hit consecutive triples to put LSU up 12-9 just over 3:40 into the game, Fisher-Davis answered with two of his own from deep to put Vandy on top for good. Branden Jenkins, in his LSU debut, buried a three to pull the Tigers within 1, but Fisher-Davis scored six straight to key a 20-5 for a 41-25 lead.
“I kind of felt like we dug ourselves a hole in the first half,” said Sims. “Ain’t no way they’re better than us. We just weren’t able to bounce back and take the lead.”
The Tigers did claw back to climb within a single point on seven straight from Blakeney to close the first half, as Vanderbilt managed just one field goal in the final 6:13 of the first half. But the Commodores turned a three-point halftime lead into a 20-point advantage by the nine-minute mark of the second half. Joe Toye scored all 8 of his points during a 3:06 stretch, and his corner 3 with 9:05 to play made it 76-56 Vanderbilt and looked to put the game to bed.
“We got some easy scoring opportunities because of how we defended. I thought that’s how we finished the half,” said Jones. “Unfortunately we didn’t start the second half the same way.”
LSU didn’t go down quietly, though. Sims buried four threes in 82 seconds for a 12-2 run of his own, part of 34 LSU bench points, to help the Tigers pull within four with just 44 seconds to play on Blakeney’s second three-pointer of the night.
“After I hit the first one, I felt like I was on,” said Sims. “So I just kept shooting the ball, and it just kept falling.”
With Victor out, Sims played a season-high 20 minutes and was LSU’s only player with a positive plus-minus (+1). The loss of the junior forward didn’t play out statistically, as LSU matched Vanderbilt with 29 rebounds and lost the paint scoring battle by just two points. As Duop Reath (5 points, 2 rebounds, 6 turnovers in 32 minutes) and Aaron Epps (3 points, 4 rebounds, 5 fouls in 22 minutes) struggled in Victor’s absence, Sims was sharp.
“Obviously, it’s tough, because (Victor) is one of our best players, one of our leaders,” said Blakeney. “Guys stepped up well, (Brian) Bridgewater, Elbert (Robinson), Wayde, Jenkins, they all stepped up and played well collectively.”
LSU was balanced on offense, with five players reaching double figures. Jenkins also gave the Tigers 19 minutes in his debut, despite being short of full health. But the Tigers defense, once again, failed to get enough stops to win. LSU has now surrendered 206 points in its last two games, 118 of them in those games’ second halves.
“No, not really,” Blakeney said, asked if he could put a finger on the Tigers’ defensive woes.
“They knocked down some contested shots tonight,” said Jones. “Anytime you score 89 points at home…you should win the basketball game. It’s obvious we did not lock down and was tenacious enough on the defensive end to get stops. We’ve got to grow and get better.”