Tigers take care of Vanderbilt, earn double bye in next week’s SEC tournament

PHOTO BY Brandon Gallego

In LSU’s last regular season home game Tuesday, an 83-68 SEC victory over Vanderbilt, the Tigers just about checked all the boxes of what an NCAA tournament team should look like.

Get off to a fast start? LSU had a 17-3 lead in the first 6½ minutes thanks to three quick 3-pointers by forward Darius Days.

“I’m one of the leaders on the team,” Days said. “Sometimes, I’ve got to bring the energy. I was making shots early, playing hard defense. The guys followed me.”

Avoid a late first half swoon? The Tigers finished on a 17-5 run to take a 22-point halftime lead, sharing the ball with 11 assists on 19 first half baskets leading to 16 assists on 30 field goals for the night.

“The sky’s the limit when we play together,” LSU forward Trendon Watford said. “We have a bunch of great players. We need to play together.”

Tenacious rebounding at both ends of the floor? LSU’s 51 rebounds including 13 offensive grabs were a season high and the third most in Will Wade’s four years as LSU’s coach.

“We gave up three offensive rebounds (in the first four minutes, including two on LSU’s first possession),” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “It let them (LSU) know they can punk us in this game and it went pretty much downhill from there.”

Four Tigers scored in double figures with the rarity of three players with double doubles.

Freshman guard Cam Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer, had 23 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore Watford added 14 points and 13 rebounds and junior Days contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds. Also, junior guard Javonte Smart scored 12 points.

The win over Vandy gave LSU (15-8 overall, 10-6 in the SEC) a double bye in the next week’s SEC tournament in Nashville. The Tigers don’t have to play until Friday’s quarterfinals.

Also, the conquest of the Commodores marked the first time since 1991-92 that LSU has won at 10 SEC regular-season games for three consecutive seasons.

“That’s not easy to do and certainly not easy to do around here,” Wade said “This is also our third straight year that we have gotten a double bye in the SEC tournament where we are going to be a top four seed.

“We came here and said that we wanted to build a consistent program. That’s about as consistent as it gets, finishing in the top four of the SEC. Do that every year and you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to do great things.”

Vanderbilt (7-14, 3-12 SEC) played without Scotty Pippen Jr. for the third straight game because of a hip injury. Pippen averages 20.5 points as the SEC’s second leading scorer behind the Tigers’ Thomas.

Thomas’ 3-pointer lit the fuse of LSU’s game-opening 9-0 run.  Excellent Tigers’ defensive rotations took the Commodores deep into the shot clock as they missed seven of their first eight shots.

Once LSU took its first double-digit lead with 14:11 left in the half, Vandy reduced it to nine points twice.

LSU has had trouble closing the first half in almost half of its SEC games, watching double-figure leads slip to five points or fewer by halftime.

But not this time. After the Commodores reduced LSU’s advantage to 10 points at 29-19 with 4:45 left, the Tigers finished the opening half on a 17-5 run with Smart scoring 8 points including two 3’s and freshman reserve guard Jalen Cook adding 5 including a 3-pointer.

LSU hit 7 of its last 8 shots – three 3’s, two dunks and a layup — for a 46-24 lead at the break. The 22-point margin was the Tigers’ second largest of the season in SEC play.

With such a cushion, LSU’s goal in the second half was to maintain the overall focus and attention to detail it showed in the first half when Vandy shot just 33.3 percent from the field and was outrebounded 22-11.

Though the Tigers made just 3 of their first 10 shots in the first six minutes after halftime, they didn’t lose any points off their sizable halftime margin.

Thomas and Smart attacked the basket on almost every possession, sending LSU repeatedly marching to the free throw line. The Tigers kept its lead at 20 or more until the game’s final five minutes.

LSU closes the regular season at Missouri on Saturday afternoon.

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Ron Higgins

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