LSU wins at Missouri, heads to SEC tourney as the No. 3 seed

LSU sophomore forward Trendon Watford scored 14 of his game-total 19 points in the second half Saturday in the Tigers' 86-80 win at Missouri. PHOTO by Madeline Carter/Mizzou Athletics

One of LSU fourth-year basketball coach Will Wade’s almost daily practice staples ever since he arrived in Baton Rouge is his “six-minute game.”

His premise is simple. Somehow lead or stay within striking distance until the six-minute mark, win the last six minutes and win the game.

In a season where LSU has had double-digit win margins in nine of its previous 10 SEC wins and has suffered four of six league losses by double figures, Wade’s “six-minute game” hasn’t really come into play much.

That is, until Saturday’s regular season finale at Missouri when LSU outscored Mizzou 19-12 in the final six minutes for an 86-80 victory that clinched the No. 3 seed in next week’s SEC tournament in Nashville.

After an 11-point LSU first half lead turned into a 40-40 halftime tie and eventually a six-point deficit with 9:32 left to play, freshman guard Cam Thomas and sophomore forward Trendon Watford got the visiting Tigers back on the team plane headed home a winner. They combined for 30 of LSU’s 40 second-half points, including 17 in Wade’s “six-minute game.” Thomas scored 16 of his game-high 29 points and Watford 14 of his 19 points after halftime.

“We played through those guys quite a bit in the second half,” Wade said. “Watford made some big plays for us, Cam made some big plays for us.”

Thomas had one of his best shooting performances of the season, hitting 9 of 13 field goals and 10 of 12 free throws. Most of his baskets were an array of spinning mid-range jumpers. He attempted just four 3-pointers, but the only one he made was huge because it gave LSU a four-point lead with 3:25 left.

“He’s a guy that does a great job getting fouled and getting to the free-throw line,” said Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin, who believes Thomas has proven he’s a one-and-done player headed to the NBA after just one college season. “He does a good job bumping, getting his shot. I think it’s safe to say we won’t see him on campus anymore.”

Wadford, who missed his first six shots on the day and was 2 of 9 at halftime, made 5 of 7 in the second half including a huge jumper from the lane with 1:02 left for an 82-80 lead to start LSU’s 6-0 run to close the game.

The Tigers even managed to hold it together down the stretch despite the fact starting junior forward Darius Days, LSU best inside-outside offensive threat and top offensive rebounder, fouled out with 3:06 left.

“It was awful,” said Days about fouling out with 12 points and 9 rebounds, “but I talked to the guys when I came out. They brought it home for us. Cam hit some big shots and free throws, and Trendon as well.”

Even with Days getting in foul trouble in the game’s first five minutes, LSU managed to build a 29-18 lead with 7:15 left in the first half, Missouri had made just 6 of 21 shots at that point including 2 of 10 3-pointers.

But the home team finally caught fire. It outscored LSU 22-11 the rest of the way until halftime, making 6 of its last 9 shots including 5 of 8 3s.

Despite the late swoon in the opening half, Wade liked his team’s chances. LSU was hanging on tough on the backboards despite Missouri’s starting frontline of 6-10, 6-10 and 6-7 having a sizable height advantage. Three of LSU’s four best scorers had stayed out of foul trouble and reserves Josh LeBlanc Sr. and Mwani Wilkerson delivered solid minutes.

LSU’s second half was one of its most efficient of the season, especially down the stretch when it swished its last 9 of 11 field goals and its final 10 of 11 free throws.

The Tigers (16-8 overall, 11-6 in the SEC) will head to the SEC tournament where they have never made it past the quarterfinal round – even when they’ve earned the double-bye – in 11 of the last 13 league tourneys. LSU has lost its first game in the last three SEC tournaments including two under Wade.

Last year’s tourney was canceled before the start of the second round as sports began shutting down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

“I’m very aware of how poor we’ve been in the SEC tournament,” said Wade, whose team plays Friday night at 8:30 vs. the winner of Thursday’s second round game between Ole Miss and South Carolina. “The last three or four years, we’ve been able to push away things that have been problems for us.

“This (the SEC tournament) has been one of those issues we haven’t been able to push away. We take this thing seriously. We’re going to be ready to go. We’re excited about going to the tournament. It’s a point of pride for us. When we play at 8:30 Friday night, we’ll be one of five teams left. We’re going to do what we can to reverse some of the bad history.”

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Ron Higgins

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