Breakthrough: LSU storms back from 16-point deficit to upset No. 11 South Carolina on the road

LSU coach Matt McMahon and Jordan Wright
Photo by LSU Athletics

The last time LSU coach Matt McMahon can remember one of his teams having five fouls to give with 15 seconds left to go in a game and needing to send the opposing team to the foul line to have a chance to pull out a win late is, well, probably never.

But that’s where McMahon and LSU found itself on Saturday against No. 11 South Carolina in a hostile Colonial Life Arena where the left-for-dead Tigers had fought, clawed and scratched back from a 16-point deficit to find itself down by only one point.

“We score to cut it to one with 15 seconds to go, and we’ve got five fouls to give. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in that situation before,” McMahon said.

“So our thought process was we were going to trap them to get either the turnover or the tie up. Then, if we didn’t get it, we had to start fouling like crazy. And we had a group ready that we were going to bring in to foul,” he said.

LSU got the trap. LSU got the tie. And LSU had the possession arrow.

Then, LSU’s Jordan Wright got the ball, started right, and cut a path to the goal, breaking for a layup. Wright shifted the ball to his left just in time as two Gamecocks clawed for the ball and fouled him in the process.

Wright, who scored LSU’s final seven points of the game, then went to the free throw line and with five second left to play, coolly sank both free throws to put the Tigers ahead, 64-63.

All of the sudden the five fouls to give in LSU’s pocket went from a huge challenge to a glaring asset.

South Carolina had to go the length of the floor and make a shot to win but, for LSU to win, and break its own three-game losing streak, and to win its first game on the road against a Top 25 opponent since 2019, LSU could foul the Gamecocks the instant they touched the ball and, as long as they weren’t in the act of shooting it was advantage LSU.

It turned out, South Carolina got the ball to halfcourt with three seconds to play. Then was able to inbounds again underneath the goal.

The Gamecocks got the ball in the hands of Jacoby Wright in the corner and he fired contested shot as time expired that McMahon said seemed like it was in the air forever and appeared dead on.

But Jacoby Wright’s shot bounced off the rim and fell harmlessly to the floor amidst a frenzied group of celebrating Tigers and a stunned Columbia, South Carolina crowd who had just witnessed LSU finally get over the hump.

Gamecock fans were like, what in the hell just happened? Up by 16 points, opened the second half on a 9-0 run, and LSU was having to play without its star guard and leading scorer Jalen Cook (hamstring). What happened?

“That was the toughness and the physicality, and the competitiveness combined with togetherness that we’ve been trying to get,” McMahon said.

“And we’ve been right there on the verge. You know, as we all know, losing sucks, man, and you’re right there. We needed a breakthrough. We needed to get over the hump.

“And I thought our guys fought like crazy to make that happen today and just found a way to get it done,” he said.

Wright had 14 points including the two hump-busting free throws with five seconds left as LSU erased the 16-point second half deficit to beat the No. 11 Gamecocks 64-63.

That’s what happened.

But it’s only part of the story.

The Tigers (13-12, 5-7 Southeastern Conference) trailed 41-25 after Zachary Davis’ 3 pointer with 16:58 to play.

But then Trae Hannibal, Jalen Reed and Ward kind of took over.

Hannibal, who began his collegiate career at South Carolina, was LSU’s on-the-court dynamo. He pulled down a season-high 12 rebounds. And rebounding, as well as LSU’s lockdown defense, was also a huge factor.

South Carolina (21-5, 9-4) had its final chance, but when Jacobi Wright’s 3-pointer from the left corner hit off the rim and bounced away, LSU was dancing in jubilation.

And while LSU’s players jumped and screamed in celebration the capacity home crowd stood in shock. Silent shock.

Ward led LSU with 16 points, while Reed added 13. Ward and Reed combined to score 24 of LSU’s 39 second-half points.

“We want to live at that rim,” McMahon said.

“And it paid off down the stretch. South Carolina’s terrific defensively, so physical and disciplined. We just kept going through the rolodex of actions to find something that would work. We got to some dribble-hand off stuff there in the second half that got the ball moving and put them in some tough spots. We were able to get some easy-roll layups and dunks from Hunter Dean, Jordan and Tyrell and were able to get downhill and finish at the rim. And when they went under a couple of those hand offs, Tyrell Ward made them pay with some huge 3s.”

Ward, who picked up three fouls in the first half, said he felt like he was in a rhythm the whole game despite picking up the early fouls and he had to work to not let that disrupt his flow.

“I was just trying not to let myself get rattled with the fouls I had in the first half because I had a rhythm a little bit, just having to trust in all my guys. There’s still trust in me to make those shots. They gave me all the ops in the world,” Ward said.

South Carolina opened the second half with a 9-0 run for their 16-point lead. Instead, the Gamecocks lost two in a row for the first time this season.

B.J. Mack had 18 points and nine rebounds to lead South Carolina. It looked like the Gamecocks might escape with victory after Ta’Lon Cooper made a 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 63-60 lead with 28.1 seconds left.

But Jordan Wright drove for a layup with 15 seconds to play to cut into the lead and the Tigers forced a tie up on the inbounds pass to Mack.

Jordan Wright was fouled by Collin Murray-Boyles. He calmly sank both foul shots for the winning points.

After trailing by five, 13-8, midway through first half, South Carolina seemed to take control with a 21-4 run led by Myles Stute, who was a teammate of Jordan Wright’s last season at Vanderbilt, and Murray-Boyles.

Stute hit a 3-pointer to tie things at 13-all, then Mack had a 3-point play that put South Carolina up.

Murray-Boyles added another inside shot and Stute a 3-point play. When Mack hit a short shot, South Carolina was up 29-17.

LSU will return home to face No. 21 Kentucky on Wednesday night.

“This means so much to us,” Ward said. “We’ve had like four or five heartbreakers in a row. I’m so happy for my team. But I feel like this is the jump start to the second part of the season.”

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