It’s almost Christmas and LSU’s basketball team still doesn’t have a quality win.
The Tigers led USC for the first 35 minutes of Saturday’s Air Reserve Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in Los Angeles’ STAPLES Center but didn’t have the 3-point firepower that the Trojans possessed.
LSU’s late cold spell and USC’s 11 3-pointers flipped a seven-point Tigers’ halftime lead into a 70-68 Trojans’ victory.
Despite guard Skylar Mays’ 21 points and double-doubles from forwards Trenton Wadford (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Darius Days (12 points, 11 rebounds), LSU (7-4) couldn’t overcome its frigid second half shooting and Emmitt Williams’ foul trouble.
“I thought this is the second time this year we deserved to win and we lost,” said LSU coach Will Wade, whose team suffered its second straight defeat. “We played so hard. I told our guys if we play like that all year we’d be in business. For the first time this year, we looked like a blue-collar, hard-working team.”
The Tigers led by as many as seven points with 11:20 left to play and was still ahead 54-50 with 8:18 remaining when LSU missed six straight shots and went without a field goal for the next 7:23.
USC (10-3) led by as many as six points at 68-62 left with 1:08 left. Yet, LSU twice cut the lead to two points and had a shot at getting the game to overtime.
But Tigers’ sophomore point guard Ja’Vonte Smart, who scored just 5 points in 29 minutes on horrible 2-of-13 field goal misfiring (including 1-of-6 3s), had a 17-foot runner blocked at the final buzzer.
The Trojans had four players in double figures, led by Jonah Mathews’ 15 points and Nick Rakocevic’s 14 points and 9 rebounds.
After coming out lethargic in Wednesday’s 74-63 home loss to East Tennessee State, LSU made it a point to come roaring from the opening tip.
Even though Williams had to take a seat with two fouls with game not quite four minutes old, LSU hit its first 5-of-8 shots and led 11-6 by the first TV time out with 15:54 left.
Everything that had been absent for the Tigers’ in the ETSU loss – sharp ball movement, energy in rebounding on both ends of the floor and relentless effort – made the trip to Los Angeles.
LSU led by as many as seven points at 15-7 with 15:15 remaining before USC began playing with more defensive intensity. The Tigers had a stretch in which they made just 1-of-10 field goals and the Trojans went on a 17-7 run.
The game entered the final first two minutes of the first half in a 28-28 tie, but LSU scored seven straight points for a 35-28 lead at the break.
It seemed like both teams exited the dressing room to start the second half trying to throw knockout punches.
USC began attacking the basket immediately, knowing that three LSU starters had two or more fouls.
In the first minute of the second half, Days picked up his third foul and Williams got his fourth foul just before the 15:26 TV timeout on a questionable illegal screen call that Wade vehemently questioned.
For the next seven minutes, every time it seemed LSU had five, six or seven-point leads and was on the verge of getting to a double-digit advantage, USC would nail one of its seven second-half 3-pointers.
LSU outrebounded the taller Trojans 43-40 and USC barely outshot the Tigers from the field 41 percent to 36.8. The difference was USC made 11 of 31 3s and LSU was 3 of 18.
The Tigers don’t play again until next Sunday afternoon at 12:30 when they face unbeaten Liberty in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The Flames are 14-0 after beating Akron in Saturday to win the DC Holiday Hoops Fest.
“The next 2½ months our backs are to the wall,” Wade said. “Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We’ve got to get to work and turn some of these games around.”