Every time in this 2020-21 basketball season when LSU played a superior opponent, the Tigers had to check a laundry list of boxes to have a chance to win.
At least three of their four leading scorers needed to score their average or better. Defensively closing-out opposing three-point shooters was a priority. Production from basically their three-man bench was needed. Holding their own in rebounding was a must as was giving a focused, consistent effort.
Unfortunately, on Monday night in the NCAA East Region second-round in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, the 8th seeded Tigers had the heart but not the energy to maintain what was required to hang with No. 1 seed Michigan until the final buzzer.
After a series of runs in the first 9½ minutes of the second half, the tall, talented and balanced Wolverines threw the knockout punch that propelled them to an 86-78 victory that ended LSU’s season at 19-10.
“We played well, but we ran into a great team,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “If we could have done a few more things differently, if we made a few more shots, if we would have finished a few more in the lane, if we would have had a few better switches defensively, we certainly could have won the game. I can’t fault our guys’ effort. We just couldn’t sustain it for 40 minutes.”
LSU freshman guard Cam Thomas and junior point guard Javonte Smart scored 30 and 27 points respectively on identical 10-of-23 shooting nights with three 3-pointers for Thomas and two for Smart. Both players made all their free throw attempts with Thomas 7 for 7 and Smart 5 for 5.
But sophomore forward Trendon Watford and junior Darius Days, second and fourth on LSU’s team in scoring average, managed just a combined 17 points (Watford 11, Days 6) on 6 of 17 shooting and collected just seven rebounds (Watford 4, Days 3).
They expended most of their energy defensively wrestling with 7-1, 255-pound Michigan center Hunter Dickinson, who was limited to just 12 points on 4 of 7 field goals as well as 10 rebounds.
But as LSU found out, Michigan just had too many offensive tentacles, especially the 3-point shooting of senior guards Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown, Jr. who scored 21 points each.
They combined for eight of Michigan’s 10 3-pointers (Brooks 5 of 9, Brown 3 of 6), including four of the Wolverines’ six second-half 3s when Michigan began separating itself.
LSU led 63-58 with 10:48 left after Thomas nailed a transition 3-pointer. Michigan coach Juwan Howard, infuriated with his team’s poor defense, called a 30-second timeout.
Whatever Howard said in the huddle was taken to heart.
In a 14-1 Michigan run over the next 5:41, the Wolverines scored on 6 of 9 possessions (3 of 5 field goals including two 3s, 6 of 6 free throws) while LSU missed seven straight shots and made 1 of 2 free throws on eight possessions.
“The defense really sparked it, sparked our pace and sparked our offense,” Brooks said. “We limited them to one shot. We made everything hard in those minutes and rebounded the ball, got out, ran in transition.”
When Brown, a major reason why Michigan dominated LSU 26 to 2 bench points, hit a 3 to end the blitz that gave the Wolverines a 72-64 lead with 5:57 left, the Tigers were essentially done.
Smart and Thomas, who played all 40 minutes, and Watford who played 35 until he fouled out, were gassed.
“We came to fight,” Smart said. “But our energy wore off. I thought we should have just kept our energy, kept going. But during the game, energy went off. They just outplayed us at the end.”
Thomas came out on fire, scoring 12 of LSU’s first 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including a pair of 3’s. Watford and Smart finally ignited offensively and the Tigers led 30-21 with 7:26 left in the first half after Days hit a free throw to complete a three-point play.
At that point, LSU had the game at its pace, it had held its own in rebounding, had no turnovers and had fought off a couple Michigan runs. The Tigers were still ahead by seven at 36-29 with 5:39 left when they wilted as Michigan closed with a 14-6 run to lead 43-42 at the half.
Maybe it was fatigue since Thomas, Smart and Watford played the entire half, but the Tigers missed 9 of its 10 field goal attempts while Michigan hit 9 of its last 11. Also, the Tigers committed five fouls in the last two minutes.
“We started attacking the basket, we didn’t settle for jumpers and we also got some stops,” Howard said. “LSU made some tough shots, some that were well contested. We could have put our head down, started to point the finger. We talked leading up to this game about how we have to move on to the next play and fix it, fix it next possession.”
The first 11 minutes of the second half were a series of runs.
There was LSU with a 9-2 burst for a 51-45 lead. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Brooks and Mike Smith jumped started 10 consecutive Michigan points as the Wolverines forged ahead 55-51.
Then it was a 12-4 LSU rally, capped by that Thomas 3-pointer that caused Howard to call the timeout that changed the course of the game and sent LSU home one win shy of reaching the Sweet 16 in two consecutive NCAA tournament trips.
Afterward while Howard prepared for his 22-4 team’s next step of playing No. 4 seed Florida State in the East semifinals probably Sunday, Wade told his players how much he appreciated them battling through a COVID-19 season in which canceled and postponed games made the schedule unpredictably fluid.
“Just to get into 29 games, man, every day was a battle.” Wade said. “These kids battled, battled, battled, wanted to play and wanted to be great.
“We started peaking at the right time. Just happened to get a tough draw and a great team like this. It’s a high-level game, it can go either way. They just made a few more shots and a few more plays than we did.”
It’s likely underclassmen Thomas, Smart, Watford and Days all declare for the NBA Draft. The latter three players entered last year and went through the evaluation process before withdrawing.
Thomas, who averaged 23 points to become the first freshman to lead the SEC in scoring since LSU’s Chris Jackson in 1988-89, has been projected as a mid first-round pick.
“We’re certainly going to lose some very, very good players,” Wade said. “We’ve got some talented young kids in the program that we feel really good about. We’re going to try to mix in some veteran guys here in the spring, have two or three scholarships to mess around with and get some talented veteran guys to join our young core that’s really, really good
“We’ve got to keep the young core together, keep those guys together, get those guys in the gym, get back to work, add a couple veteran pieces. I think we can be right back where we are tonight.”
Still unresolved is Wade’s alleged NCAA recruiting violations that came from him talking with a street agent in a phone conversation that was wiretapped by the FBI.
Last week in almost an hour-long in-studio live interview with Talk Louisiana daily radio show host Jim Engster, LSU athletics director Scott Woodward said he doesn’t know where the case stands.
“It’s something that is hanging over our heads and I’m hoping the NCAA will be more expeditious than they have been in the past about dealing with it,” Woodward said.
When Wade was reinstated by LSU after being suspended for the 2019 postseason because he refused to speak to LSU administrators about the FBI tape, he agreed to changes in his contract to accept a termination if any Level I or Level II NCAA violations are discovered by LSU or the NCAA infractions committee.