LSU wanted a game before it dived into SEC play next week, and it certainly got one Saturday afternoon.
And maybe more than it bargained for in the unofficial “Knock Off The Rust” Classic.
In a battle between LSU and Nicholls State, teams that have cancelled three consecutive and five consecutive games because of COVID-19 protocols, the Tigers had to fight until the game-ending horn to take an 86-80 victory before a socially distanced Pete Maravich Assembly Center gathering of 2,198.
If anything, the win for LSU (5-1) might be a precursor about how to handle the week to week uncertainty of canceled games and what players will be available because of COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s something new every week” said LSU sophomore forward Trendon Watford, who had 22 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. “You never know if the game is going to get canceled or if you’re actually going to get the virus. Guys just have to be ready from game-to-game.”
The Tigers were junior starting point guard Javonte Smart, someone with 52 career starts who freshman guard Cam Thomas described as “someone who has been in tough games – we missed his voice.”
Smart was sidelined by COVID-19 protocols, and also missing was sophomore reserve center Bryan Penn-Johnson, the transfer from Washington who LSU coach Will Wade saidnhe allowed to return to his home in California to “take care of family manners.”
LSU managed to hang on to a lead it had for more than 37 minutes vs. the pesky 2-4 Colonels, despite getting outscored in the paint 35-19, on second-chance points 18-12 and in bench scoring 35-19.
Thanks to Thomas’ 29 points featuring 7 for 7 free throw shooting, Watford’s overall play and Darius Days’ 15 points and 8 rebounds, the Tigers avoided being upset in a game that was hastily scheduled on Christmas Eve.
“We were able to knock a little bit of the rust off and we certainly need to be better on Tuesday (when LSU opens SEC play at home vs. Texas A&M,” Wade said. “They outrebounded us, they turned us over quite a bit.
“Our transition defense in the first half kept them in the game. They blew the ball up the court against us. Second half, we couldn’t guard the ball in the half court. We just gave up way too many easy shots in the paint, way too many easy shots at the rim. When they missed them, we didn’t rebound enough of them.”
LSU was able to win because it shot 55.4 percent from the field (31 of 56) and attempted and made twice as many free throws (20 of 28) than Nicholls.
The Colonels never faded because they simply outworked LSU on the backboards, especially 6-7 senior reserve forward Damien Lewis. He outscored LSU’s bench by himself, with 14 of his 20 points coming in the second half when Nicholls cut LSU’s lead to three points five times.
But the relentless Colonels never could get over the hump.
LSU wisely put the ball in Watford’s hands and he consistently beat his defender off the dribble to either draw contact or found Thomas, who either smartly settled for pullup jumpers or drew fouls.
“The defense is going to try and run me off the three-point line, so I’m just working on my game and taking what they (the defense) gave me,” Thomas said.
Wade was pleased with the play of his big three.
“Cam played great on the offensive end, he did what he does, we needed every point,” Wade said. “Trendon [was able to take some of the game pressure off those guards. I was pleased with Days. I thought he did some good things as well.”