By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Will Wade’s staff agonized all week about the first play they’d call against Houston. Wade’s preference is to pound the paint early, but he knew he could free up Aaron Epps, starting his third straight game at the 5, for an open 3.
“We went back and forth all week on whether to do it,” Wade said. “Finally, I just said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s roll the dice.’”
The gamble paid off. Epps buried the three, the first of many makes on a career night that saw him score 26 points and 16 rebounds, as the Tigers won a wild one over Houston on Wednesday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, 80-77.
“That,” Wade said of the first of Epps’ eight made field goals on the day, “set the tone for his night.”
Epps came up with the first play, but Tremont Waters came up with the last. After turning the ball over on LSU’s final offensive possession, with a chance to clinch the game with a score, the freshman point guard clinched it with a stop, stuffing Corey Davis’ game-tying three-point attempt – the first block of his career – to seal the victory.
“I had just turned the ball over, so I knew I had to make a big-time play,” Waters, who finished with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, and that all-important block, said. “I had to contest it, which I didn’t do all game. Winners make winning plays, so I had to.”
It was fitting LSU (6-2) won the game on the defensive end of the floor. The Tigers entered the game ranked 225th nationally in defensive efficiency, but they held a high-scoring Houston offense to 44 percent shooting for the game. Daryl Edwards spent much of the second half on Houston’s leading scorer, Rob Gray, who finished with 20 points but made just 4-of-10 shots after the break.
On the other wing, Skylar Mays came up big, particularly in the second half, attacking the rim, as a scorer and a rebounder. He finished with 18 points and a career-high nine rebounds, as LSU became the first team to outrebound Houston all season (38-33). This, after Wade ran his team through an extra practice on Wednesday morning. In addition to the traditional pre-game shootaround at 2:45 p.m., Wade had his players go “good on good” for an hour at 10 a.m., the product of a poor practice on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t pleased with how practice ended yesterday,” Wade said. “I tell our guys preparation breeds confidence, and confidence builds toughness. We have to prepare the right way so we are confident. When we are confident, we will fly around and play tough. I felt that’s what our team needed, and that’s what we did. I think we played a little tougher because we had that mindset.”
LSU trailed by a point after a seesawing first half that ran out of buckets after 14 minutes. The Tigers raced to a 14-5 lead behind the creativity of Waters and the sharpshooting of Aaron Epps. The two combined for 20 of LSU’s first 22 points, and Epps’ second three put LSU up 19-8 after five minutes.
The Cougars answered with a three-point barrage, first from Armani Brooks, who knocked down three in two minutes for a 9-0 run of his own, and then from Davis, who scored 11 straight in less than two minutes, including three threes, the last of which gave the visitors their first lead, 27-26. After Gray’s back-to-back layups pushed the Houston lead to four, Waters connected on three assists in a row, the last of which found Duop Reath for a turnaround jumper and a 35-32 lead with 6:44 left in the half.
That’s when the points, up until then raining in droves, dried up. LSU didn’t make a field goal the rest of the half, getting only a pair of Epps free throws the rest of the way. But as the Tiger offense stiffened up, so, too, did its defense, holding Houston to just six points over that span, and without a field goal after Davis’ jumper with 2:56 to go, for a 38-37 halftime score.
LSU took to the glass to retake the lead, grabbing eight of the first 10 rebounds of the second half. Epps’ grabbed two in one possession to draw a foul, sinking both free throws to put LSU up four with just over 13 minutes to play, and Mays’ inside-out crossover freed him for a layup, capping off a 10-0 Tiger run for a 55-49 advantage at the 12:20 mark. With Davis turning up the heat on Waters, Mays became the focal point of the Tiger offense, scoring 12 of the team’s first 24 second half points.
Houston used lockdown defense to creep back ahead, holding LSU without a field goal for 4:26 and taking the lead on a Devin Davis midrange jumper with seven minutes remaining. But Waters nailed a stepback 3 and Edwards buried one from the top of a key for a quick 6-0 run and a 67-62 LSU lead with six minutes left. Davis dialed up another three, though, his sixth of the night and a signal the Cougars would only go down gunning.
Epps’ work on the boards proved to be decisive. He scored six second chance points in the final three minutes to give LSU the win. His three-point play with 57 seconds left gave LSU an 80-74 lead.
“Some of the rebounds he got, he was the only man in the gym who was going to get those,” said Wade, who appeared to get choked up talking about Epps’ night. “He’s earned everything he’s gotten. He deserves everything. I’m just happy for him that everything he’s done is rewarded. He so deserves it. He’s just the best.”
And on the other end, Waters answered a potentially costly turnover with a certainly critical rejection. Wade took blame for the turnover, saying he didn’t put enough movement into the play and forced Waters into a tight corner. But the credit for the stop went entirely to his 5-foot-11 point guard, who played much bigger than that when the moment needed him to.
“Once you saw him flying out there, you knew we had a chance to get that thing,” Wade said. “He’s a competitor, now. He knew, we turned it over on one end, he needed to make something happen for us to win. And he was going to make it happen. He wants to be part of turning this thing around so bad. Sometimes you gotta dial it back a little bit. But he makes winning plays.”