On Senior Day, LSU needed big plays from all classes to ensure a win in its regular season home finale – though the win might mean more PMAC hoops are ahead in the NIT.
Freshman Tremont Waters went for 14 points and 10 assists. Sophomore Skylar Mays scored just seven points but flushed home the dunk of the season. Junior Brandon Sampson provided 16 critical points off the bench. Senior Duop Reath scored 12 and grabbed 8 rebounds, and his classmate, Aaron Epps, finished his four-year career with four triples, including a late dagger to clinch a 78-57 win over Mississippi State.
Even walk-on senior Reed Vial joined the action, scoring five points and bringing the PMAC to its roarint feet with the final points of the game, a three-pointer from the left wing.
“That’s about as well as it can go on Senior Day,” said Wade. “It doesn’t get much better than that when you’re trying to honor your seniors.”
The Tigers outshot Mississippi State (21-10, 9-9) 52 to 41 percent and hit 48 percent from deep, led by a career-high four from Epps, who finished with 16 points. His final two threes were two-pronged daggers, pushing LSU’s leads to 16 and 18, respectively, after a relatively close contest unfolded for 30 minutes. Epps, the first four-year scholarship senior to leave the program since Andre Stringer in 2014.
“I was just happy, because I felt like people saw the hard work that I put in,” Epps, who left to a standing ovation, said. “I just went out there and showed it. It was fun.”
The win pushed LSU to 17-13 on the season and 8-10 in SEC play, both of which could just be enough to see the Tigers through to the NIT, and possibly as a top-four seed with a first-round home matchup. LSU awaits the results of three games – Texas A&M-Alabama, South Carolina-Auburn, and Georgia-Tennessee – to learn its seeding fate for next week’s SEC Tournament.
“I think we’re an NIT team,” Wade said. “I told my team that the other day, after the South Carolina game: ‘We tried to will ourselves into the NCAA Tournament, but this is who we are.’ The NIT would be a great step for us if we could get into that tournament. I think we’re good enough, if we got in there, to make a run and maybe get a chance to go to New York. That’d be a great year, to get into that thing. I think we’re in pretty good shape right now. I’d like to get one more in St. Louis.”
Louisiana native Lamar Peters led the Bulldogs with 15 points.
Waters and Reath connected three times in the first four minutes, the freshman assisting the senior on a trifecta of pick and rolls. Waters then dished to Epps for the first of two threes from the fourth-year senior, who tossed in a jump hook minutes later. The seniors teamed up for 14 of the Tigers’ first 16 points.
State’s attack worked outside in. The Bulldogs’ first 11 points came on three 3s and two free throws after Waters fouled a three-point shooter. Then, Ben Howland’s squad went to the rim, getting eight straight points in the paint for a 21-18 lead.
LSU roared back with a 12-0 run, highlighted by Waters’ dipsy-do lay-in on an elbow drive. The Tiger defense put the clamps on State, holding them scoreless for nearly six minutes and forcing nine straight misses before Nick Weatherspoon’s mid-range effort finally found net.
“We played (Brandon) Rachal the last 11 minutes of the first half, and I think they scored 11 points in 11 minutes,” Wade said. Rachal scored 6 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and pulled in 4 steals. “I thought he did a really good job. Our guys stuck to the game plan. It’s a little risky when you go under ball screens. They hit three or four 3s to start the game, and our guys stuck with the game plan, and they regressed back to the mean.”
That run helped send LSU up 37-32 after 20 minutes, but the play of the half went to Mays. With 3:19 left in the half, the sophomore drove down the right side of the lane and slammed over two Bulldog defenders. The crowd reacted with stunned silence; Mays fell to the floor after the finish but rose with an ear-to-ear grin.
The play of the game, though? That belonged to senior walk-on Reed Vial. He started the game and subbed in late when it was out of reach. His two free throws brought the crowd to its feet and sent Waters leaping through the air in celebration; his three-point in the final seconds brought the house down.
“That’s on my teammates,” Vial said. “Everybody knows when I get in the game they try to get me the ball. That’s not really my thing, but I’ll do it if I have to.”
“That’s his thing,” Waters interjected.
A slam from Epps 90 seconds into the second half gave LSU a nine-point lead, but State worked it down to as little as two on back-to-back layups from Aric Holman and Lamar Peters four minutes later. Sampson delivered a timely layup, and Waters tossed in a three to make it a more comfortable seven-point edge. Sampson then grabbed a free offensive rebound and finished through a foul, hitting the free throw for a 55-47 LSU lead under 10 minutes to play. Sampson was a perfect 7-of-7 at the line and led the charge in LSU’s 29-7 advantage in bench points.
“Doing a lot of the dirty things got me going today,” Sampson said. “Diving on a couple loose balls, things like that, got me revved up.”
“He was awesome,” Wade sadid. “That is what we have been trying to do.”
Rachal floated in the next bucket to put the Tigers back in front by double digits at the under eight mark, and Mays busted a corner three for LSU’s largest lead of the night, 60-49, under six. Two minutes later, Epps made it 66-60 with his top of the key three-pointer, the first of three late triples to put the game out of reach.
The Tigers won the battle on the glass 33-28, tallied 17 assists to State’s six, and made more free throws (11-of-16) than the Bulldogs attempted (5-of-7).
“This is about as well as we have played in a while,” Wade said.