Welcome back Darius Days.
And LSU’s previously M.I.A. shooting touch.
The Tigers went from suffering their worst shooting performance of the season a week ago in an 18-point loss at Alabama to enjoying their best night of accuracy in a 94-80 SEC road win Wednesday night at Mississippi State.
Days, a junior forward who sprained his ankle Jan. 30 against Texas Tech and missed the Alabama game, provided the Tigers with a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds, including tying his season high of 4 3-pointers (in 6 attempts).
“It has been very terrible sitting and watching my guys playing without me because they needed me there,” Days said. “The postponing of the Florida game (scheduled for last Saturday in Baton Rouge and not played because the Gators didn’t meet the SEC’s minimum COVID-19 protocol requirements) was great timing. It helped my ankle heal faster and we just rested our bodies.”
Days shooting was infectious vs. the Bulldogs as LSU (12-6, 7-4 SEC) shot 61.3 percent (38 of 62) from the field, including 65.6 percent (21 of 32) in the second half.
And because Days was hot from the start, it forced Mississippi State (11-10, 5-7) to spread its defense wide, rolling out the red carpet to the basket for LSU guards Cam Thomas and Javonte Smart.
Thomas, a freshman who leads the SEC in scoring and is third nationally, scored a game-high 25 points on 9 of 15 field goal accuracy including 3 of 7 3’s.
Smart, a junior, had a double-double of 22 points and 11 assists, hitting 8 of 10 shots including 2 of 3 3s. He gave out a shout-out to Days for making it possible.
“He helps us space the floor, his pick and pop 3s are unbelievable,” Smart said. “He’s there to make shots for us. We needed him to knock some shots in early and it started our defense up.”
LSU held sizeable advantages over the Bulldogs in points off turnovers 26-3 and in fast break points 24-8. The Tigers’ 2-2-1 press speeded up Mississippi State enough to create 15 turnovers.
“We really got hurt in transition defense and there is no excuse for it,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “We gave up 24 points in transition and that is crazy. We had problems matching up and communicating and that was really disappointing.”
As it turned out, LSU’s unexpected open date this past weekend was a blessing for the Tigers.
“It gave us some time to clean some things up and put some new things in to get the offense moving better,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “I thought we looked fresher tonight.”
Even with an 11-0 run, LSU led by just 41-39 at halftime. But in the first four minutes of the second half, an unlikely offensive power source helped the Tigers take control.
Sophomore swingman Aundre Hyatt, who started in place of freshman Mwani Wilkinson because he didn’t make the trip due to illness, scored seven of LSU’s first 11 points to open the second half. It started with a deep left corner 3-pointer just 22 seconds after halftime.
Also, junior forward Josh LeBlanc provided a huge spark of the Tigers’ depth-depleted bench, which was missing sophomore forward Shareef O’Neal who sat out with an aching ankle. LeBlanc didn’t miss a shot en route to scoring 8 points and grabbing 2 rebounds.
LSU’s biggest suspense down the stretch was trying to keep sophomore forward Trendon Watford and Days from fouling out.
For the third time this season and second in last three games, Watford got hit with a technical foul five minutes into the second half for an obvious display of unsportsmanlike conduct. After scoring from the lane, he caught the ball coming out of the net and intentionally dropped the ball into the lap of a Mississippi State defender who was on the floor after unsuccessfully taking a charge.
It was the first of three technicals for the Tigers issued by the quick trigger officiating crew of Joe Lindsay, Byron Jarrett and Olandis Poole.
Wade and his staff received one during a timeout with 9:20 left to play and LeBlanc was whistled for a technical with 5:22 remaining but no seemed to know why.
“I never got an explanation,” Wade said of LeBlanc’s technical.
When Wade was asked if he had a recourse to discuss in the next few days the overload of technicals with the league’s coordinator of officials (Mike Eades), Wade said “It’s a fool errand” four times getting louder and more disgusted with each repeat.
Just as Wade got off the postgame Zoom press teleconference, he turned to LSU basketball media director Kent Lowe and asked, “Did you think I said enough (about the officiating) to get fined (by the SEC)?”