It was your typical LSU basketball game, circa the 2020-21 season.
A seven-point LSU first-half lead shrunk to a 2-point halftime edge which expanded to an 11-point advantage in the first 2:24 after halftime before LSU was losing by 5 about 6 minutes or so later and then winning by 7 almost 5 ½ minutes later and finally leading by a single point with 1:17 left to play after a typical lapse in shot selection and offensive rebounding.
And it also wasn’t a normal 2020-21 Tigers’ game as they made almost every big play in the last-minute Friday night to finish off a 76-73 SEC tournament quarterfinals win over Ole Miss in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
When the game-ending horn sounded announcing LSU (17-8) had won its first league tourney game since 2006 to advance to Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. semifinals against Arkansas (22-5), there was a palpable sense of relief from the third-seeded Tigers.
“The first win (in a tournament) is the hardest,” said LSU junior forward Darius Days, who had a double-double of 20 points (including 3 of 4 3-pointers) and 12 rebounds.
The Tigers did plenty good and bad and somehow came out the other side unscathed as they played through their mistakes with sheer perspiration and desperation.
“I’m proud of our guys digging it out and making plays down the stretch,” said fourth-year LSU coach Will Wade, who got his first-ever SEC tourney win. “It’s very good we’ve done this in back-to-back games (also last Saturday at Missouri). It shows some growth.”
Days and sophomore forward Trendon Watford, who delivered one of his best games of the season with 24 points (on 11 of 14 field goals) and 7 rebounds, matched Ole Miss physicality.
“Me and Darius embrace the physicality, we embrace getting down there and doing the dirty work,” Watford said. “It’s tournament time, nothing comes easy.”
Ole Miss (16-11), on the bubble for an NCAA tourney invite, did many things required to beat LSU.
It limited sophomore guard Cam Thomas and junior point guard Javonte Smart, the Tigers’ All-SEC backcourt duo that entered the night averaging a combined 38.7 points, to a combined 28 points.
Thomas scored 14 of his 18 game-total 18 points in the second half and Smart had 8 of his 10 after halftime.
The Rebels kept LSU off the free throw line as the Tigers made just 11 of 16 attempts but hit 9 of 10 in the second half. LSU outshot Ole Miss 44.6 to 40.6 in field goal percentage while the Rebels outrebounded LSU 42 to 37 including an 18-13 edge in offensive rebounds.
LSU had no answer to stop Ole Miss junior guard Jarkel Joiner, who scored a career and game-high 26 points including 5 of 11 3s.
So with many things going the Rebels’ way, how did they lose?
“We fought it and couldn’t make the plays right down the stretch,” said Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis Jr., who’s hoping his team is one of the final selections when the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket is announced at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS. “LSU has some talent, offensive players kept making some plays. They made some 50/50 plays.”
Especially the end of the game just after Ole Miss senior guard DeVonta Shuler hit his only 3-pointer on the night to shrink LSU’s lead to 69-68 with 1:17 left.
The Tigers called timeout with 1:08 remaining and Wade drew up a pick-and-pop play with Smart and Days.
Two defenders chased Smart as he went left towards the top of the key. He passed back to his right to Days, who nailed his third 3-pointer of the game with 58 seconds left for a 72-68 edge.
“I shoot that from that spot everyday in practice,” Days said. “They left me wide-open. Guys trust me to knock that shot down and I did.”
It was the start of a 7-3 LSU burst in the next 46 seconds that included a steal by Tigers’ freshman reserve guard Eric Gaines and his missed layup which was tapped in by a trailing Watford with 23 seconds remaining for a 74-68 advantage.
Then after Joiner’s 3-pointer for the Rebels and subsequent Ole Miss timeout with 20.4 seconds, LSU inbounded and managed to run the game clock to 12.2 seconds left.
That’s when Ole Miss fouled Thomas, the SEC’s best free throw shooter. He made both shots and LSU advanced to set up a third meeting this season against Arkansas, which enters Saturday’s semis with a school-record 12 straight wins.
Back on Jan. 13 in Baton Rouge, LSU put together an astonishing 40-6 first-half run, built a 31-point lead and coasted in for a 92-76 win over the Hogs.
In the return match in Fayetteville on Feb. 27, Arkansas flipped a five-point halftime deficit into a 20-point second half lead before finishing an 83-75 victory.
LSU will end a long drought if the Tigers can reach Sunday’s 12 noon finals against the Alabama vs. Tennessee winner. LSU hasn’t played in the SEC tourney championship game since losing 82-65 to Kentucky in 1993 on the Wildcats’ home court Rupp Arena.
“It’s going to be a good one,” said Days of Saturday’s matchup vs. Arkansas. “Neutral court. Our guys are ready. Their guys are ready. Bring your popcorn.”