By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Aaron Epps thought he buried it, a point-blank layup to wash away his team’s many mistakes Saturday against Stephen F. Austin.
Meritocratic fate – or, perhaps, simple physics – had other plans.
Epps’ last-second attempt spun off the rim and out, the ninth missed layup of the day for the Tigers, and the visiting Lumberjacks left Baton Rouge with a $90,000 paycheck and an 83-82 win.
“We lost the game well before that last play,” LSU head coach Will Wade said. “We didn’t deserve for that layup to go in. The way we played, with how tough they were, we didn’t deserve that.”
LSU (6-3) had a nine-point first-half lead and six-point second-half lead, but Ivan Canete scored 10 of his game-high 20 points over the final 8:28, including the game-winning layup with 5.9 seconds to play, to lead SFA (10-1) to the win.
Tremont Waters finished with 19 points, 12 after the break, including a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left that looked to give the Tigers an 82-81 win. But the Lumberjacks jumped on a loose ball on the other end and found Canete for the winning score. Waters took the inbounds pass and laced a strike to Epps, who had time to finish from the left side of the rim. But his attempt went long on a day when the Tigers went just 12-of-21 on layups.
“I was trying to finish the play,” Epps said. “I thought the ball went in, but then I saw it bounce out. It was tough.”
Waters fell on the sword after, saying he should’ve shouldered the load with the clock ticking down to zero.
“I feel like the right read in that situation should’ve been me going to take the shot,” he said. “Not being selfish or anything. Coach has enough trust in me and he believes in me, that I wouldn’t put my teammates in that situation. I don’t think Epps knew I was going to throw him the ball. I think he thought I was going to take the shot. I’m going to have to take that one on the chin.”
SFA led at halftime, 48-47, surpassing their season average for made 3s (6) in the first 20 minutes by hitting 8-of-15 from deep before the break. LSU’s 63 percent shooting from the field kept things tight.
After Ty Charles put the Lumberjacks up 23-22 on a layup, Mays, who added four points and four assists in the first half, scored LSU’s next nine points, and his dish to Wayde Sims for a three-point play capped off a 9-0 Tiger run and a 36-27 Tiger advantage at the six-minute mark.
But SFA hit five straight shots, including a trio of Kevon Harris three-pointers, part of a 15-4 run that saw them pull ahead 48-44 on back-to-back threes from Ivan Canete and Charles. Waters answered with a three to cut the deficit to 1 at the half.
Wade said he felt even before tipoff something was amiss with his team. He took blame for an easy practice on Thursday and an “okay” session Friday.
“We probably should’ve gone a bit more,” he said. “We’ve got to learn to handle it a little bit better…I could sense that today was going to be a meat grinder.”
LSU’s defense shored up in the second, holding Stephen F. Austin scoreless on its first 10 possessions of the half – seven misses and three turnovers – to pull ahead 54-48. It might’ve been more if not for four turnovers in the first five minutes after just five in the entire first 20 minutes. The Tigers coughed it up 12 times in the second half, in total, including three charges called on Mays.
“We’ve got to take better care of the ball, making the right plays and not trying to make the home run play,” said Mays, who finished with 17 points and 6 assists.
The Lumberjacks wouldn’t go away, though. They answered Daryl Edwards’ second three of the game with a 10-4 run, hitting five of six shots while LSU went nearly four minutes without a field goal before a Brandon Rachal eight-footer ended the dry spell. Samuli Nieminen’s three-point play with 10:30 to go knotted the score at 63.
Steals and free throws proved key to both squads in a seesawing affair that led to a wild finish. Waters grabbed one and passed to Mays, who found Duop Reath for an alley-oop. Another from Edwards got Waters to the line, where he made a free throw for a 75-72 lead.
But LSU made just one field goal over the final 6:18, failing to get good looks against a high-pressure Lumberjack defense. SFA doubled Mays and Waters on ball screens, forcing the ball into the hands of less threatening attackers.
“They tried to make some of our other guys beat them,” Wade said, “and we just don’t have enough guys who can make plays. They made some of our non-playmakers, some of our role guys, take more of a primary spot. We couldn’t do it.”
The visitors, meanwhile, snatched up rebounds and pounced on loose balls, none more important than the one that led to Canete’s winning lay-in. Wade had the option to call a timeout with 5.9 seconds to go after the basket, but he declined, more willing to attack a scrambling defense than a set one.
“You get a better look when the defense is scrambling than if you call something,” he said. “We got as good a look as you can get.”
There’s no time for the Tigers to lick their wounds. They head back to the floor against Sam Houston St. on Tuesday at 7 p.m., when they’ll seek to right the ship against a 6-5 Southland squad.
“We got beat because we weren’t tough enough,” said Wade. ” We turned the ball over 17 times, and they out-rebounded us. They were just more physical than us. They finished a little bit better around the rim than we did. That ultimately got to us.”