The names of head coaches change, the players filter in and move on through the years.
But as again demonstrated in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, LSU vs. Arkansas is usually an entertaining mix of basketball ballet and battle royale.
After 19 lead changes and 13 ties, Tigers’ true freshman forward Trendon Watford prevented the Razorbacks from winning here for the second straight season.
In the game’s final 32 seconds, Watford converted two old-fashioned three-point plays and guard Charles Manning blocked two Arkansas game-winning 3-point attempts in the last two seconds to preserve 79-77 SEC home win Wednesday night.
Watford finished with 21 points and 9 rebounds as LSU improved to 10-4 overall and 2-0 in the SEC. Guard Skylar Mays added 19 points and forward Darius Days had 16 points and 16 rebounds.
Guards Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt Jr. led the Razorbacks (12-2, 1-1 SEC) with 24 and 22 points respectively.
Watford sandwiched his three-point plays with 32.3 seconds left and 8.4 seconds remaining around a three-point play by Arkansas’ Isaiah Joe with 21.3 left that gave the Hogs a 77-76 lead.
“(LSU) Coach (Will) Wade drew a few plays for me coming out-of-bounds,” Watford said. “He just trusted me to do what I do every day. I have to thank my teammates for putting me in that position.”
For the entire game, LSU’s best offense as Arkansas first-year head coach Eric Musselman noted was “putting it up and going to get it.”
Wade didn’t disagree. How could he when the Tigers outscored the Razorbacks’ 26-0 in second-chance points? LSU destroyed Arkansas 53-24 in rebounding, including 23 offensive boards.
“We killed them on the glass which allowed us to get more shots than them,” Wade said. “It was a huge win for us. They’re a very, very good team.”
Arkansas showed that by leading by as many as 11 points in the first half and LSU twice had a seven-point advantage in the second half before the teams settled into a fight to the finish.
The Tigers started the game lethargic and soon trailed 35-24 with 4:06 left in the first half. A 12-0 run by the Razorbacks in a 3:12 span while LSU went stone cold from the field along with three turnovers, put the Tigers on the ropes.
But consecutive 3-pointers by Days and three Tigers’ free throws with 21 seconds left in the half following a technical foul on Arkansas’ Reggie Chaney resuscitated the home team. LSU’s 13-5 closing burst left the Tigers trailing 40-37 at halftime.
LSU continued to hammer the Hogs on the boards in the second half. The Tigers, with every player offensively attacking the basket, twice built seven-point leads before Arkansas tied the game at 58-58 heading into the final 11 minutes.
The Razorbacks hung tough because they stopped lofting 3-pointers and also began taking the ball hard to the basket.
“I don’t think there’s any team in America that plays any harder than we do,” said Musselman, a former LSU assistant who took over the Razorbacks this season after a successful four-year stint at Nevada. “They made a run the last four minutes of the first half and they made a run to start the second half. We don’t go away. I’ll go with these guys any night into an arena and go play, because they’re giving us all they’ve got for sure.”
It was LSU’s third straight victory after it suffered back-to-back losses to East Tennessee State and USC.
Mays, the Tigers’ lone senior starter, knew the Razorbacks would be a tough out. Last season when LSU won the SEC regular season championship, the Tigers held on for a 94-89 overtime win in Fayetteville. Arkansas then came to Baton Rouge and handed the Tigers one of their two SEC losses in a 90-89 decision.
“We know they are a quality team,” Mays said. “They play as hard as we have seen. We just kind of tried to match their energy.”
LSU will have to bring the same effort Saturday when Mississippi State, the national leaders in rebound margin heading into this week’s play, roll into the PMAC for a 7 p.m. tipoff.
The Bulldogs fell to 9-4 overall and 0-2 in the SEC when they got waxed 90-69 at Alabama on Wednesday night. The Crimson Tide outrebounded Mississippi State 42-38.