Considering COVID-19 has wrecked havoc on LSU’s non-conference basketball schedule and forced a quick switch of Saturday’s SEC opponent, if there’s one thing the 2020-21 Tigers do consistently well is adapt.
So when LSU freshman guard Cam Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer, sprained his right ankle in the first 99 seconds in Saturday’s game at Ole Miss and finished scoreless eventually playing only four minutes, the Tigers didn’t blink.
Instead, they turned up the defensive heat and Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days combined for 53 points in a 75-61 league road victory.
“We don’t make excuses, we make it happen,” said LSU coach Will Wade, whose team improved to 7-2 overall and 3-1 in the SEC. “We don’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, we just find a way. When you have that mentality, it helps in situations like these.”
In game that was just scheduled Friday since LSU and Ole Miss (6-4, 1-2 SEC) had games cancelled because previously scheduled Saturday opponents Missouri and South Carolina respectively didn’t meet the COVID-19 minimums set by the SEC, Tigers’ veterans Watford, Smart and Days showed the way after Thomas’ injury.
Sophomore forward Watford scored 21 points and grabbed 6 rebounds, Junior point guard Smart had 17 points and 6 assists and junior forward Days contributed 15 points and 7 rebounds as LSU forced 20 Rebels’ turnovers leading to 29 Tigers’ points.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Watford said, “so when Cam went down it was next man up. We leaders did a good job of keeping the group together and us three carrying the load.”
Thomas sprained his right ankle on his first shot of the night, a top of the key three-pointer as he landed on the foot of Ole Miss guard Devontae Shuler. He limped to the sideline, eventually began peddling a stationary bike, re-entered the game with 11:06 in the first half and played just 2:14 before going to the bench for the night.
Wade said he didn’t think Thomas’ ankle injury was severe, but hinted Thomas will likely miss Wednesday’s home game vs. Arkansas.
“When you jump so high on your jump shot like he (Thomas) does, they (defenders) walk up underneath you as you’re coming down,” Wade said. “This has happened in practice a couple of times. He said it (Saturday’s sprain) wasn’t as bad as some of the other ones he’s had.”
Thomas’ unexpected absence was the cue for LSU’s three returning starters from last year’s team to band together. They had some valuable help from reserves Eric Gaines (10 points, 4 steals) and forward Josh LeBlanc (5 rebounds, 3 blocked shots).
The fact that Tigers got their first double-digit lead just five minutes after the game’s opening tip and held it the rest of the way was a tribute of following an aggressive defensive game plan to perfection.
“We wanted to bring the energy early (on defense),” Smart said. “Everybody bought in.”
Besides stepping into passing lanes, the Tigers limited Ole Miss’ offense to 35.4 percent shooting from the field. In the first half when LSU took control with a 39-21 lead at the break, the Rebels made just 6 of 23 shots (26.1 percent) from the field including 1 of 10 3’s.
“They (LSU) beat us in every area,” Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis Jr. said. “They were not going to let us play a conventional game. Will Wade was running our 1-3-1 defense and doing it better than we do it.”
Shuler, who scored 28 points and hit 5 3’s against LSU last year in a Rebels’ loss in Baton Rouge, scored just 2 points on a couple of free throws. He missed all 9 of his field goal attempts including 6 3-pointer clanks.
“This is the team we can be, we played how we need to play,” Wade said. “I told our guys in the locker room after that we don’t need to go back. We’ve got to be moving forward from here on out.
“The way we prepared, the way we went about things, our focus was through the roof. We looked like a real team, a championship level team. Sometimes when you get rid of some negativity, good things happen.”
On Friday, LSU senior Charles Manning Jr. entered the NCAA’s transfer portal after Wade and Manning met Thursday. Manning was upset with reduced minutes and possibly his role off the bench. Wade thought it was best Manning transfer before LSU’s spring semester started on Monday.