There have been times this basketball season when a multiple possession LSU lead with two or three minutes left in a game is still a nail-biting margin with way too much time remaining.
Like then-No. 10 ranked Texas Tech erasing a seven-point LSU advantage with a 12-0 scoring run in the game’s last minute on the Tigers’ homecourt for a five-point win on Jan. 30 in the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
At Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals in Nashville, the third-seeded Tigers led second-seeded and No. 8 Arkansas by 10 points with LSU just 2:28 away from reaching the tournament finals for the first time since 1993.
Considering the historical implications, those almost 2½ minutes left on the Bridgestone Arena clock felt like 2½ years, especially after a 9-0 Razorbacks run had the Tigers clinging to a one-point lead with 37 seconds left.
So, after four empty LSU offensive trips that included two missed shots (on one possession), a missed free throw and two turnovers while Arkansas scored on four straight possessions, the Tigers turned to their most experienced player to stop the Hogs in their tracks.
In the 73rd start of his 90-game LSU career, junior point guard Javonte Smart scored four points in a 15-second span to spark LSU’s 6-0 game-closing run for 78-71 victory that advanced coach Will Wade’s team to Sunday’s 12 noon finals against No. 6 ranked and SEC regular season champion Alabama.
“That’s what point guards do,” said Smart, who scored 19 points along with four rebounds, four assists and two steals. “Before the game, Coach (Wade) always tells me `Lead us to the win’ whatever that is, rebounding, assists, playing defense, whatever I got to do to give us that victory, I’ll do it.”
In this case, it was Smart hitting a 5-foot floater with 26 seconds left for a 74-71 lead and then swishing two free throws with 11 seconds remaining for a 76-71 edge after a steal by reserve guard Eric Gaines.
And it was appropriate that Gaines, a wispy 6-2, 155-pound freshman, closed out the win with a pair of free throws with four seconds left. His season-high 10 points (including a fearless 3-pointer with 2:56 left) and five rebounds in 21 minutes was indicative of the team effort required to snap the Razorbacks’ 12-game SEC winning streak.
“We had tons of contributions, it was a total team win,” said Wade, whose team is now 18-8. “Proud of how we’ve been playing. We showed some toughness (in last Saturday’s win) at Missouri. We showed some toughness last night (in Friday’s 76-73 quarterfinals victory over Ole Miss) and some toughness today. We made some key defensive stops and we got just enough rebounds when we needed.”
LSU’s “Big Four” – starters Cam Thomas, Smart, Darius Days and Trendon Watford – carried most of the heavy-lifting as usual, combining for 62 points and 21 rebounds.
Freshman guard Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer, had 21 points including 4 of 6 pointers. Junior forward Days, who didn’t score at Arkansas in a Feb. 27 83-75 loss when he was 0-for-8 (all 3-pointers), scored 13 points on 5-of-9 field goals and grabbed eight rebounds. Watford added nine points, seven rebounds and three steals.
Besides Gaines’ contributions off the bench, junior forward Josh LeBlanc Jr. added four points and eight rebounds.
Both teams shot around 42 percent from the field and LSU stayed close enough to Arkansas in rebounds with Razorbacks holding a 42-39 advantage including 16 offensive rebounds.
The fact the Tigers battled the Hogs almost even on the boards, along with lockdown defense that caused Arkansas some serious shooting droughts, ultimately proved to be difference-makers.
After Arkansas freshman guard Moses Moody scored 16 of his game-high 28 points in the game’s first 9½ minutes to stake the Razorbacks a 31-24 lead, they were just 2-of-19 from the field the rest of the way until halftime. At one point, Arkansas went without a field goal for just more than six minutes.
Yet LSU couldn’t build anything larger than a six-point lead at 38-32 with 5:35 left on a Smart dunk.
The Tigers missed their last 7 of 8 shots of the opening half, Arkansas misfired on its final six attempts and LSU got to the dressing room with a 40-37 lead.
In the second half, the Hogs had a cold stretch of just more than eight minutes without a field goal as they missed eight straight shots.
“We did a poor job of taking care of the basketball, I think we had 10 second half turnovers,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, whose 22-6 team remains projected as a No. 3 seed when the NCAA tourney selection committee announces the brackets at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS. “We drove the ball into traffic. Give LSU a ton of credit for winning the game.”
LSU has moved up to a No. 5 seed in many NCAA tourney projections. Wade feels win or lose in Sunday’s league tournament finals, the seed won’t be affected.
But Wade and Tigers badly want to win this tourney. LSU’s only SEC tournament championship occurred in 1980 in the second year the tourney was restarted in 1979 after a 26-season hiatus.
Becoming LSU’s second-ever team to win the conference tournament presents a huge challenge since Alabama beat LSU twice in the regular season by an average of 24 points.
In a Jan.19 first meeting in Baton Rouge, the Crimson Tide hit an SEC record 23 3-pointers including their first 12 of 15 in the game’s first 14½ minutes in a 105-75 blowout. The 30-point loss was the second worst under Wade in his four seasons guiding the Tigers.
Then in Tuscaloosa on Feb. 10, LSU trailed just 36-30 at halftime but missed 12 of its first 13 shots in the second half leading to 18-2 Alabama run and a 78-60 Tide victory.
The Crimson Tide (23-6), guided by second-year coach Nate Oats who was selected the SEC’s Coach of the Year and led by league Player of the Year Herbert Jones, came back from 15-point deficit to beat No. 4 seed Tennessee 73-68 in Saturday’s first semifinal.
“We’ve got to obviously do something quite a bit different than we’ve done the first two times,” Wade said of Alabama. “They’ve absolutely blasted us. We’ve got to change some things up and figure some things out.”
Smart said he’s looking forward to the game for a couple of reasons.
“This is what I came to LSU for, this is what I came to do,” Smart said. “I love winning. I just wanted to get to the championship game, play against ‘Bama. I think we owe them, we need some respect. This is the way to get it, by winning games.”