Defending SEC regular season champion LSU’s stay atop the conference race is over.
Despite a desperate late rally after the Tigers trailed by 14 points in the final 5:47, LSU fell 88-82 at Alabama on Saturday afternoon.
LSU (18-7 overall, 9-3 SEC), dropped a game behind Kentucky (20-5, 10-2) and into a second place tie with Auburn (22-3, 9-3) in league play. Kentucky, which plays at LSU Tuesday night, scored a 67-62 home win over Ole Miss early Saturday while Auburn lost on the road at Missouri 85-73 Saturday night.
Third-year head coach Will Wade’s Tigers cut Alabama’s lead to 79-78 on a Skylar Mays 3-pointer with 1:35 left and to 82-80 with 1:10 remaining on two Emmitt Williams free throws.
But in both cases, the Crimson Tide (14-11, 6-6 SEC) answered with their 12th and 13th 3-pointers of the day. LSU was basically done when guard Javonte Smart’s turnover with 24 seconds left led to Alabama guard Jaden Shackleford’s breakaway layup four seconds later for an 87-80 advantage.
Shackleford, who scored 26 points, and fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis, who hit for 27, torched LSU from the opening tip to the final horn. They combined to make 19-of-36 field goals, including 9-of-19 3s.
“I was proud of our guys the last eight to 10 minutes, we played hard,” Wade said. “But they (Alabama) played harder than us for longer stretches of the game. That’s just not going to get it done.”
Mays led LSU four double-figure scorers with 24 points. Forward Trendon Watford had 18 points, Smart added 16 and forward Williams recorded his 12th career double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Tigers were hurt when Darius Days, who scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 90-76 win over Alabama in Baton Rouge on Jan. 29, got in foul trouble early. He was almost invisible, finishing with 6 points and 5 rebounds before fouling out with 3:05 left.
The two keys that helped LSU pound Alabama in the first meeting – rebounding and free throws – were kept under control by the Crimson Tide.
The Tigers led 51-33 at the half in that game in the Maravich Assembly Center, scoring 50 points in the paint with 20 second chance points while killing the Tide in rebounding 49-31.
This time, LSU only outrebounded Alabama 44-42, but the Crimson Tide collected 10 offensive rebounds in the second half leading to 9 second-chance points. Also, Alabama was 19-of-26 from the free throw line compared to 13-of-17 for the Tigers.
“They made six more free throws than us and it was a six-point game,” Wade said. “I hate to be so basic. It’s not about the officiating. We were soft at the rim in the first half. We’re sitting there fading away, we were off-balance. We just weren’t tough enough. It came back to bite us.”
When LSU opened the game by lofting four 3-point attempts in its first six shots, Alabama had to be thrilled that the Tigers thought they could beat the Crimson Tide at their own game.
The first half was a series of runs. But LSU’s failure to get to the free throw line often, the return of Days getting in foul trouble through a series of senseless infractions and Alabama scoring as many layups as 3-pointers (6) put the Tigers in an uphill battle.
LSU pulled into a 25-25 tie with 4:08 left in the first half. But Alabama’s 15-4 run for a 40-29 lead at the break was just a preview of how the Tide kept it going at the start of the second half.
Wade was forced to call a timeout with 15:34 left after halftime when Alabama expanded its lead to 16 points at 53-37 with a 13-8 burst that included 3 three-pointers. Eventually, the Tide led by 18 at 59-41 with 14:08 remaining.
“The game really changed at the end of the first half when we go in (to the locker room) down 11,” Wade said. “It’s very difficult when you’re playing that far behind the entire second half.”