LSU loses by a point to Alabama in SEC tournament finals, opens NCAA tourney play Saturday vs. St. Bonaventure

Two missed two-foot offensive rebound putbacks in the final 1.6 seconds.

That’s all that separated third-seeded LSU from upsetting No. 6 ranked and regular season SEC champion Alabama in the league tournament finals Sunday as the Crimson Tide escaped with an 80-79 victory in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

Off an aborted LSU inbounds play starting with seven seconds left to play from the baseline under Tigers’ basket, sophomore forward Trendon Watford airballed a 3-point shot from right side of the top of the key.

It was plucked in front of the basket by sophomore guard Aundre Hyatt, whose quick flip hit the back of the rim with one second left and caromed to junior forward Darius Days. He tried to get the ball back in the basket with three-tenths of a second left but left it short when Watford collided with him trying to crash the boards as the final buzzer sounded.

And with that, despite Watford’s career-high 30 points and junior point guard Javonte Smart’s 21 points, LSU (18-9) lost a heartbreaker to a Crimson Tide team (24-6) that had blasted the Tigers twice in the regular season by an average of 24 points.

“We put the world on notice, not just the SEC,” said Watford, who was selected to the all-tournament team along with freshman guard Cam Thomas after averaging 21 points and 7.3 rebounds in three games. “Coming into this tournament, nobody expected us to make it out of the first (day), something (LSU) Coach (Will) Wade hadn’t done since he’s been here. We woke the world up, we’ve got more to prove.”

The Tigers have earned their second straight NCAA tournament bid since last year’s tourney was canceled due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the entire three-weekend tourney being played in Indianapolis for COVID-19 quarantine purposes, LSU received an invite late Sunday afternoon as a No. 8 seed. They will play No. 9 seed St. Bonaventure (16-4) Saturday.

While LSU failed by the narrowest of margins to win its first SEC tournament title since 1980, the way the Tigers played the last three days in wins over Ole Miss in the quarterfinals and No. 8 ranked Arkansas in the semis and in Sunday’s final loss to Alabama has encouraged Wade.

“This is the team, quite frankly, I expected to have most of the season,” Wade said. “We haven’t necessarily played that way all year, we’ve played hot or cold or hit or miss. We finally started playing closer to our potential as a team this weekend. I guess better late than never, but we’ve got to carry it over to the NCAA tournament.”

LSU should be certainly battle-tested for the Big Dance, especially after Sunday’s tit-for-tat tilt with the Tide. For the last 23½ minutes of the hotly-contested, emotionally-charged game, the lead only got past four points just twice.

Both times, it was Alabama taking a six-point lead at 69-63 with 6:54 left and a five-point cushion at 76-71 with 2:31 left.

LSU’s response was six straight points in a 31-second span by Watford for a 69-69 tie with 5:52 remaining and six consecutive points on back-to-back Smart 3-pointers in 59 seconds for a 77-76 Tigers’ lead with 1:16 left.

While LSU’s starting lineup scored every one of the Tigers’ points on the day including Thomas’ 18 points, it was Watford and Smart doing their best not to let their team lose.

Despite the fact Alabama hit 12 3-pointers including three times when LSU had established a four-point lead and though the Tide had a 50-43 rebounding advantage including 19 offensive rebounds leading to 16 second-chance points, the Tigers would not fold.

Watford and Smart accounted for 27 of LSU’s final 29 points in the game’s final 13:27 as well scoring the Tigers’ last 19 points in the final 7:55.

While Alabama was getting contributions from various sources, including sophomore guard Jaden Schackelford (a team-high 24 points including 5 of 13 3-pointers) and SEC Player of the Year Herbert Jones (13 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists), Watford and Smart carried LSU’s offensive load.

“I thought Trendon played a great game,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “He hadn’t played particularly well in some of the earlier games when we beat them twice earlier in the year. I thought he was great today. Ends up with 30. We had a hard time guarding him today.”

In a 4:27 stretch starting with 7:55 left in the game, Watford scored 11 straight points, including a pair of old school 3-point plays and a 3-pointer.

Watford, who has had several cold shooting performances in recent weeks, hit a career-high 13 field goals in 23 attempts using his array of moves in the lane and finishing through contact. He said patience was the key in the best performance of his 58-game college career.

“When I got in the lane, I didn’t try to throw a crazy shot up,” Watford said. “I just tried to take my time in there and get to whatever move I wanted to get to and all my shots were falling.”

It was Watford’s last basket of the game, again on a power move to the basket with 27 seconds left, that gave LSU its last lead of the game at 79-78.

Alabama immediately blew back up the court and Jones euro stepped around Watford (who had four fouls) for a lead-taking layup with 19 seconds left.

After an immediate timeout by the Crimson Tide, Smart’s drive to the basket parallel to the right side of the lane was swatted out-of-bounds by Alabama’s Keon Ellis with seven seconds remaining.

Smart tried to in-bound the ball, but quickly called time out to avoid a five-second violation. In the huddle, Wade diagramed the play he wanted.

“Trenton was supposed to go to the elbow, I was supposed to come off a curl from (Darius) Days (a screen),” Smart said. “But I kind of threw it (the inbounds pass) too far.”

By the time Watford collected the ball and worked back within shooting range, the 33 percent 3-point shooter launched a 3 with 3.5 seconds left that neither Hyatt or Days could get into the basket for the win.

It was the toughest of losses to swallow. But by the Tigers bus to Indianapolis on Monday for mandatory COVID-19 testing and quarantine, they get some rest and start pointing towards Saturday’s game.

“We played great three days straight, that’s the best we’ve looked all season,” Watford said. “We’re just trying to keep this momentum rolling going into March Madness. I truly feel like we’re a Final Four team. When everybody is clicking, everybody is clicking.”

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Ron Higgins

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