LSU didn’t do its NCAA tournament chances much good Saturday with its second straight SEC road loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
No. 20 ranked Arkansas won its ninth straight, turning a five-point halftime deficit into a 20-point second half lead before coasting in for an 83-75 home victory over the fading Tigers.
After battling most of the first half with junior starting forward Darius Days in foul trouble, the Tigers (14-8 overall, 9-6 SEC) collapsed in the second half.
“It was a tale of two halves, you saw us at our best and you saw us at our worst,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “We played pretty well in the first half, but we should have been up by 10 or 12. The second half we got off to decent start, and then it got away from us. Our rebounding and defense let us down and our offense became a bit bogged down.”
Freshman guard Cam Thomas led LSU with 25 points and 7 rebounds. But he hit a stretch of just more than 14 minutes in the second half when he was held to just one field goal after scoring 18 points in the game’s first 23:14 minutes.
Thomas was part of the Tigers’ frigid streak in which LSU missed 13 of 15 field goals and 4 of 7 free throws as a one-possession game turned into a rout.
“We just missed a lot of open shots and missed too many free throws,” said Thomas, who made 11 of 19 field goals but just 1 of 5 3-pointers.
It was more than just missed shots. In the second half, Arkansas shot 55.3 percent from the field after hitting just 33.3 in the first half. Also, the Razorbacks (19-5, 11-4 SEC) outrebounded LSU 45-39 with a 23-12 second half domination.
Something else that crushed the Tigers was Days being held scoreless in his 18 minutes of playing time. He went 0 for 8, all missed 3-pointers.
Sophomore Trenton Watford had 16 points and 7 rebounds for the Tigers, but a large portion of his scoring came after Arkansas took control. Point guard Javonte Smart contributed 15 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
LSU led 37-32 at halftime and getting there certainly wasn’t easy for the Tigers.
Days picked up his second foul with 13:37 left in the first half and LSU leading 12-6. The Tigers played without Days most of the rest of the half but survived because of the play of junior forward Josh LeBlanc Sr. and freshman forward Mwani Wilkerson off the bench.
While he scored just 3 points, LeBlanc grabbed 7 rebounds including 4 of the Tigers’ 9 first-half offensive boards that led to 8 LSU second-chance points.
Wilkerson added 5 points, including a badly needed 3-pointer when Tigers missed eight straight shots after they had taken a 30-20 lead with 6:26 left.
Unlike past games when LSU totally collapsed in the last six minutes left in the first half, Arkansas only outscored the Tigers 12-7 until the halftime buzzer.
The Razorbacks made their first six shots of the second half and the Hogs went on 11-2 run to twice take five-point leads just about the time Watford briefly awoke from his offensive coma with a drive and a 3-pointer.
But LSU had no answers for four Arkansas double-figure scorers, led by University of Indiana graduate transfer forward Justin Smith’s double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds.
“We played a bad first half and LSU played great, we were kind of stuck in mud,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “When we passed the ball around on the perimeter in the first half, we weren’t shot-ready. I thought we were just High School Harry passing the ball around with our knees locked. You have to get in triple threat (position), you have to be shot ready.”
LSU returns to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Tuesday night at 7:30 to play its final home game of the regular season vs. Vanderbilt. The Tigers close the regular season next Saturday at Missouri in a game that was canceled Jan. 9 because Missouri didn’t meet the SEC’s minimum protocol standards.