By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
After two losses in three games over the Thanksgiving break, LSU needed a win in the worst way on Tuesday night against Houston.
It played accordingly.
The Tigers bounced back from a 1-2 showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, using a dominant second half, aggressive offensive rebounding, and their best defensive display of the season to take an 84-65 win over the Cougars.
“That’s the best 40 minutes we’ve played,” said Antonio Blakeney, who led all scorers with 23 points on 10-of-23 shooting (3-of-5 3-pointers).
LSU (5-2) was excellent inside and out, particularly on defense. It held the nation’s third-best three-point shooting team to 29.4 percent shooting from deep, 16 percentage points below their season average, and beat Houston handily both the boards (46 to 28) and for second chance points (23 to 5).
“It’s been good consecutive practices leading up to this point,” said junior Craig Victor, who had 13 points and 9 rebounds, including five of LSU’s 20 offensive boards, to go along with a career-high four steals. “We had a good experience in the Bahamas. We just wanted to come back with an edge to ourselves.”
They did just that, holding Houston (5-1) to 40.4 percent shooting on the night. Rob Gray, who scored 31 in Houston’s 105-98 overtime win over LSU last year, lead the Cougars with 19 points, but only four came after halftime. LSU limited Houston to 8-of-24 from the field after the break, using the tournament in the Bahamas as fuel to their fire.
“The trip served a purpose for us,” said LSU head coach Johnny Jones. “We came back with a different focus, mindset. The urgency our guys played with transferred from our play there.”
Brandon Sampson (16 points, 4-of-7 from 3-point territory) and Aaron Epps (11 points, 7 rebounds) rounded out the double-figure scorers for LSU, and freshman Skylar Mays posted a career-high 11 assists off the bench, the most by a Tiger since Torris Bright dished out 12 against McNeese State in 2002.
“It’s not hard to get 11 assists when Tone and Samp get hot,” Mays said. “Everyone made shots. I was just trying to get everyone involved.”
The first half was a back and forth affair. The Tigers took a 39-38 advantage into the locker room, and neither team lead by more than four during the game’s first 20 minutes. LSU used an offensive rebounding barrage and a steady diet of Sampson three-pointers to build the advantage. Sampson scored 14 of his 16 in the first half, hitting all four of his threes before the break.
Gray matched him bucket for bucket with 15 in the opening half to stay close. LSU shot just 42 percent in the first half but was dominant on the glass, outscoring the Cougars 17-2 in second chance points, all with leading scorer and rebounder Duop Reath sidelined due to foul trouble.
Victor was the key. He controlled the block with strength and intelligent positioning, holding Houston forward Chicken Knowles to just 3 points — 17 fewer than last year’s contest and 9 below his season average.
“He does a great job taking care of the paint for us,” Jones said of Victor. “That’s something we need, that toughness. We need that paint protector.”
The Tigers turned that defense into offense in the second half. They started hot, using an 18-4 run spanning back to the first to build a 53-42 lead on a Blakeney corner 3 with 15:50 to go. The Tigers’ lead never dipped below 9 points, with Reath blocking five shots ub in the period. Eight straight points from Epps, who hit all five of his field goal attempts, in three minutes helped the Tigers ice the win. Mays’ 11th assist came on an Epps elbow jumper with 4:39 left, the culmination of a stellar showing from the freshman point guard.
“Skylar is a true point guard,” said Jones. “He’s an excellent quarterback.”
It was a superb second half effort in which LSU outshot Houston 58 percent to 33 percent, outrebounded them 23 to 9, and outscored them 45-27.
Sampson and Blakeney traded halves as alpha dog, with the former taking over the first and the latter closing things out. Both entered the game shooting below 30 percent from deep, but combined to connect on 7-of-12 attempts from 3.
“As we got open looks, we shot the ball with more confidence tonight,” said Sampson. “We got good looks and knocked them down.”
Blakeney, who blanketed Gray in the second half, also chipped in with eight rebounds — four offensive — as the coaching staff sent him to the glass more often. After a disappointing Thanksgiving week, Blakeney was grateful for a little victorious vengeance.
“Every win feels good,” he said. “This feels a little better because they were undefeated and they beat us last year. We’re just trying to show we can prove people wrong.”
The Tigers take a break for final exams, returning to the court on Dec. 13 against North Carolina Central.
“Now we can go back to the drawing board,” said Jones. “We have things we need to add. We’ve seen how we can play defensively. Those are things we can build on. These next two weeks we’ll use a lot of time emphasizing why we won this game tonight.”