Finally, it came together.
The smothering defensive rotation. The relentless offensive rebounding. The aggressive drives to the basket. The appropriately timed dagger 3-pointers.
All things LSU did that had the Tigers on top of the SEC two weeks ago showed up at South Carolina in an 86-80 victory Saturday afternoon.
Despite one of its patented late game swoons that resulted in a South Carolina hitting 7-of-9 field goals in a burst that cut the Tigers’ 19-point lead to four points at 84-80 with 17.9 seconds left, LSU held on by hitting 6-of-8 free throws.
After losing four of its last five games, LSU (19-8 overall, 10-4 in the SEC) led for almost the entire way. The victory kept the Tigers tied with Auburn for second place in the league two games behind first-place Kentucky with four remaining regular games.
“We were markedly better in a lot of areas,” Tigers’ coach Will Wade said after taking care of the Gamecocks. “Our defense was a whole lot better. We’ve spent 80, 90 percent of our practices on defense.”
Tigers’ forward Darius Days scored 16 of his team-high 18 points in the first half. His scoring help included guard Javonte Smart with 18, forward Trendon Watford with 15 points and 10 rebounds and guard Skylar Mays with 13 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists.
South Carolina was led by Keyshawn Bryant and Jermaine Cousinard with 16 points each.
The first half was a series of runs. LSU had 9-0, 8-0, 7-0 and 5-0 bursts, South Carolina had a pair of 7-0 rallies.
The bright spot for the Tigers was their defense appeared considerably better that it had been in their string of recent losses.
LSU’s largest full half lead was 39-29 with 4:41 left. At the one-minute mark, it was 39-37 as the Tigers missed seven straight shots.
A total collapse was avoided when Days put together a 5-0 run on a 3-pointer and a dunk off his steal to get LSU to the locker room at the half leading 44-37.
The Tigers were beginning to pull away when Days exited the game after butting heads with Cousinard with 13:37 left. Then, Mays banged his head off the floor when he was whistled for a charging foul with 11:40 left.
At that point, LSU led 65-51 and two players that had scored 29 points were suddenly out of action.
But after a media timeout, Days came back from being examined in the locker room and re-entered the game along with Mays.
As LSU tried to keep a double-digit lead, the Tigers began getting in foul trouble. With eight minutes, LSU had four players with three or more fouls, including two starters.
LSU almost built a 20-point lead in the second half before the Gamecocks made their late push.
“We need to get the wind behind our sails,” Wade said. “We’ve been fighting the wind a little bit. This (win) says a lot about our team to re-group. We were getting their (the Gamecocks) best shot, they were desperate. We were desperate. It was going to be who could impose their will and our guys found a way to get it done.”
LSU plays at Florida Wednesday at 8 p.m. with the game televised by ESPN2. The Tigers edged the Gators, 84-82, on Jan. 21 in Baton Rouge when officials disallowed Keyontae Johnson’s layup off an inbounds pass because it came after the game-ending buzzer.
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