By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Antonio Blakeney didn’t change his process from game one to game two.
The results sure were different, though.
LSU’s sophomore fired in 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting, hitting all three attempts from 3-point land, as LSU (2-0) rolled wire-to-wire over Southern Mississippi, 78-61.
Blakeney, who reached the 20 point mark for the ninth time in his young career, matched freshman Skylar Mays for the team lead with 6 assists — a career high — and added five rebounds. It was quite the turnaround from his season debut, when he scored 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor and an 0-for-5 effort from 3.
“I just tried to come out and be aggressive, whether it was taking the shot or passing the ball, getting the rebound,” Blakeney said. “Really, it’s key to my teammates for spacing the floor and believing in me to make shots.”
After a back-and-forth start, Blakeney heated up to put LSU in front, bookending the 19-5 run that put the Tigers in control. His layup with 11:50 left broke a 13-13 tie, and his three-pointer with 4:01 left gave LSU its largest lead of the first half, 32-18.
Antonio Blakeney. Pull up on em. pic.twitter.com/OQk91BMJfH
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 16, 2016
“We know Antonio can make plays,” said LSU head coach Johnny Jones. “We’re never concerned about his ability to score.”
On the other end, the Tigers buckled down defensively early, limiting the Golden Eagles (1-1) to 1-of-9 shooting during the critical run. Aaron Epps’ tip in at the buzzer sent the Tigers to the locker room leading 37-25, thanks in no small part to a 34.6 defensive field goal percentage. Jones said LSU struggled “to get into a flow” on offense, but was satisfied with how they defended the first 20 minutes.
“We’re a team that certainly can score, put up a lot of points in a lot of ways,” he said. “On nights we may not be scoring well, defense is going to save us. That’s where we’re going to have to build our base.”
LSU would need that base during a critical stretch in the middle of the second half. Southern Miss scrapped back with an 8-0 run to start the second half, but the Tigers answered in kind with an 8-2 run of their own, sparked by a Wayde Sims corner three. Sims scored all 10 of his points after the break, giving the Tigers a much-needed shot in the arm with Duop Reath (10 points in 20 minutes) plagued by foul trouble.
“I like to let the game come to me,” said Sims, “not force a lot of stuff.”
Jones and Blakeney had more words of praise for the savvy freshman.
“Wayde is one of my favorite people because he always brings energy,” said Blakeney. “He’s always going to play well when he gets his opportunities.”
“He’s been so solid for us,” added Jones. “He hit some timely shots for us in the second half…He didn’t come with a lot of fanfare in terms of recruitment. But he’s been a solid player for us. Not flashy, but you see how productive he’s been.”
The game soon bogged down with whistles — the officials called 35 fouls in total — and when Reath went to the bench with four fouls and 8:04 to play left in the game, LSU needed every defensive stop it could muster as it endured a three minute scoring drought after the 10 minute mark. It got plenty of them, as the Golden Eagles managed just four points during the Tigers’ scoreless stretch, barely making a dent in the large LSU lead.
“When you build a bit of a cushion and you go that long without scoring, the great thing is our guys are at least conscious of making an effort on the defensive end of the floor,” said Jones. “I’m proud of the way they continued to battle.”
Brandon Sampson’s spinning layup broke the slump, putting LSU up 62-52 at the 6:33 mark. Back to back dunks from Sampson — who rounded out LSU’s double-digit scorers with 11 points on 2-of-4 shooting from 3 — and Sims extended the lead to 14, and threes from Patterson and Blakeney gave LSU its largest lead of the night, 76-59, with 1:59 to go.
Blakeney splits the pick and roll and finds Sims for the slam. #LSU pic.twitter.com/akeva2GFJt
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 16, 2016
For the night, LSU outshot USM 54 to 39 percent from the field and 56 to 17 percent from behind the arc.
“Everything has to start on the defensive end,” said Sampson, who tied a team-high with 6 rebounds.
LSU returns to the PMAC for a 7 p.m. tipoff against North Florida on Friday. Jones is happy with his team’s start, but he sees areas for progress, from on-ball defense to moving the ball on offense.
“We scored 78 points, but I didn’t think we ever really got into the rhythm that we would have liked to on the offensive end of the floor, and we still shot about 53 percent,” he said. “Those are areas that we can improve on and continue to get better as our season progresses.”
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