The eighth best scoring team in major college basketball introduced itself to the 2021 NCAA tournament Saturday by scoring four points in the first 8½ minutes of its first round East Regional battle in Bloomington, Ind.
Whether it was nerves or simply trying too hard, No. 8 seed LSU missed 11 of its first 13 shots against ninth-seed St. Bonaventure. The two baskets LSU made were from offensive rebounds.
But Tigers’ fourth-year coach Will Wade wasn’t too concerned because the Bonnies had clanked 17 of their opening 19 shots and weren’t getting any offensive rebounds.
“I knew as long as we were getting (defensive) stops and getting rebounds, we were going to be in pretty good shape,” Wade said.
Because Wade knew barring foul trouble, injuries or LSU freshman guard Cam Thomas being held captive by armed guards in the St. Bonaventure dressing room for the entire second half, the Tigers were too athletic, too versatile, too physical and too focused for the Atlantic 10 tournament champions to handle.
LSU finally melted the early ice off its frigid shooting as junior guard Javonte Smart and sophomore forward Trendon Watford hit consecutive 3-pointers in a 45-second span and the Tigers never trailed in the final 30 minutes of a 76-61 victory in the University of Indiana Assembly Hall.
In advancing to Monday’s second round game against No. 1 East seed Michigan which beat No. 16 Texas Southern 82-66, LSU (19-9) held St. Bonaventure to 33.3 percent field goal shooting and destroyed the Bonnies 49-30 in rebounding.
Once the Tigers reheated and got to halftime leading 31-22 halftime despite skirting first-half foul trouble with Smart and Wadford, their second-half path to victory became clear.
Keep being defensively disruptive, maintain intense rebounding and stay widely spaced on offense for Thomas to drive repeatedly to the basket and score or draw fouls from the Bonnies (16-5), who rely solely on their starters to get the job done.
Thomas scored 20 of his game-high 27 points after halftime as he, junior forward Darius Days and sophomore guard Aundre Hyatt combined for 39 of LSU’s 45 second-half points.
“My shots were a little off in the first half (1 for 8 including 0 for 3 3-pointers), so I had to get going by getting to the free throw line and getting to the basket,” said Thomas, who hit 6 of 10 shots including 2 of 4 3-pointers in the second half as well as 6 of 7 free throws to finish off an 11 of 13 day at the line.
“It’s just natural, I don’t really work on stuff like that (drawing) fouls. I just figured that I had to get to the free-throw line for me to have a good game, so I did whatever I had to do to get to the line, and it worked.”
St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt, who described Thomas in a post-game press conference as “a pro, he’s a first round pick, he’s going to be making millions of dollars one day” said it was clear Thomas re-gained confidence once he started marching to the free throw line.
“Against good shooters or good scorers, you don’t want them to get to the foul line and give them cheap ones, then they get their confidence and the rim starts looking a little bigger,” Schmidt said. “We fouled him (Thomas) too many times. . .he does a good job of drawing fouls. He hit a couple threes, deep ones, but he got off when we got him to the foul line.”
LSU’s abundance of rebounding resulted in three double-doubles from Tigers’ starters. The production of Days (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Watford (11 points, 11 rebounds) wasn’t a surprise.
But the first career double-double for the 6-6 Hyatt, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds (including 7 of LSU’s 14 offensive boards) as well as a game and career-best 4 blocked shots, was a bit of a stunner to everybody but Hyatt’s teammates and the LSU coaching staff.
“What you saw today, that’s what we see every day in practice, and he (Hyatt) actually shoots it really, really well,” Wade said. “I trust him, he’s steady. You know where he’s going to be. He came up huge for us against Alabama (in last Sunday’s SEC tourney finals loss, he came up huge for us in this game here. That’s why you stick with guys.”
LSU’s defense held Kyle Lofton, a 6-3 two-time All-A10 first-team guard who averages 14.6 points, to just 10 points on 3-of-18 field goals including 0-for-4 3-pointers.
“It wasn’t our best shooting day,” said Bonnies’ junior guard Jaren Holmes, who scored a team-high 18 points. “Those are shots we want. Those are shots we normally hit. They just didn’t fall today. LSU had good shots, they got a couple offensive rebounds and they were just getting easy looks. They were falling today for them, and they were hitting shots. So, kudos to LSU.”