Mays and Smart pull Tigers out of February haze with a win over Texas A&M

A summation of LSU’s 2019-20 basketball season to date:

A 5-2 November of nobodies.

December’s downer of 3-2.

Jetting through January 8-0.

A 4-5 February fade.

Yet, added all together it’s 20-9 overall and 11-5 in the SEC as the calendar turns to March for LSU after it beat Texas A&M 64-50 Saturday afternoon in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

On a day that former LSU all-American guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf became the fifth Tiger to have his jersey number retired in an emotional halftime ceremony, guards Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart traded having big halves to get the win that gave their teammates a needed jolt of momentum.

Mays had 19 of his game-high 24 points in the second half after Smart scored 11 of his 14 points in the first half for a team running low on manpower. The Tigers lost reserve guard Charles Manning Jr. earlier this week with a broken foot for the second time since the start of SEC play.

As much as Mays and Smart complemented each other on the court against the Aggies (14-14, 8-8 SEC), they complimented each other off it, also.

“We’re at our best when Javonte is aggressive and looking to score,” Mays said of Smart. “We need him to score for us and he’s doing that.”

Smart gave a nod to Mays’ finishing kick vs. A&M in which he scored eight points and assisted on a Emmitt Williams dunk in a game-closing 12-5 LSU run in the last 6:15.

“I believe in Skykar and wanted him to take us home,” Smart said of Mays, who also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.

Mays’ clutch performance came after his uncharacteristically bad game in Wednesday’s 81-66 loss at Florida when he scored a season-low 3 points on 1-of-6 shooting. Like the rest of the Tigers a few days ago, he looked tired from the opening tip of a night to forget in Gainesville.

“I just wanted to make sure I didn’t put two bad ones back to back,” said Mays, who bounced back against the Aggies making 4 of 7 3-pointers and 6 of 6 free throws. “I wanted to be aggressive and try to make plays.”

Even though Mays didn’t score much in the first half, Texas A&M first-year coach Buzz Williams noted his effect from the opening tip.

“I thought he (Mays) did a really good job of getting us into rotation,” Williams said. “His assist numbers don’t necessarily show it but I think kind of like a hockey assist, he’s driving it, we’re in rotation, he makes a pass and the next pass led to a basket. He was doing a really good job of making sure that LSU got a really good shot whether the ball came directly from him or it started from him.”

A 6:34 scoreless stretch for the Aggies in the final 10 minutes in the first half placed A&M in a 28-20 halftime deficit. The visitors never got closer than six points as their game-total points tied a season low for an LSU opponent.

For a Tigers’ defense that had allowed an average of 86 points in their five February SEC losses, holding A&M to half a hundred was a welcome sight.

“Usually 50 points is about a half for us,” Wade joked. “We did a good job. We were at the point of attack and all that. They have some guys that are somewhat limited so you can help off a little bit.”

Even in the loss, A&M checked off several boxes on what it has taken lately to beat the fading Tigers, whose bench rarely goes past two-deep now.

It kept LSU from shooting a load of free throws (just 8 of 12 for a team averaging 17 of 22) and from dominating points in the paint (outscored the Tigers 18-16) or in rebounding (LSU led 35-33). The Aggies also kept suckering the home team into firing up 3s as the Tigers’ 31 attempts (10 made) were the third most this season.

Yet, A&M made just one free throw in nine attempts and never was able to find any offensive rhythm. Once Smart’s jumper gave LSU a 5-3 lead, the Tigers led for the game’s final 37½ minutes.

LSU’s win, combined with Florida’s 63-58 loss at Tennessee, helped the Tigers regain sole possession of third place in the SEC race two games behind first-place Kentucky and one behind second place Auburn. If Kentucky beats Auburn Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats would clinch the SEC title with LSU and Auburn tied for second.

The Tigers are one win away from getting one of the four byes in the SEC Tournament that starts March 11 in Nashville. A bye would advance LSU to Friday’s quarterfinals.

LSU finishes the regular season with a Wednesday road game at Arkansas and a Saturday home game vs. Georgia. Wade knows every victory is crucial for the Tigers to breathe easier about earning a second straight NCAA tournament bid.

“We took certainly a positive step forward, but not by any means are we safe,” Wade said. “There’s still more work to do.”

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Ron Higgins

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