It was actually more like a WWE battle royal than an SEC basketball game, but then again it’s usually like that when LSU and South Carolina occupy a space that’s more like a steel cage than a court.
Bodies banging, elbows flying. No love tap fouls allowed and you better know how to drain free throw after free throw.
“We knew coming into the game it was going to turn into a free throw contest,” LSU freshman guard Cam Thomas said. “Make our free throws and close out the game.”
The Tigers scored 11 of their last 14 points from the free throw line and the Gamecocks missed 12 of their last 13 field goal attempts in the game’s last 7:46 in an 85-80 LSU victory Saturday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Facing an eager South Carolina team that has had four games cancelled and four games postponed because of COVID-19 protocols, LSU (10-2, 5-1 in SEC) chased the Gamecocks for almost the game’s first 37 minutes before taking the lead for good with 3:06 left on junior forward Trendon Watford’s two free throws.
Watford and freshman guard Cam Thomas accounted for 19 of the Tigers’ final 25 points in the last 9:22 when Watford made 6 of 6 free throws and Thomas was 4 of 4.
Thomas finished with a team-high 25 points, but it was the 6-9 Watford who the Tigers saddled and rode down the stretch when he invariably touched the ball in the post on every possession whirling and clawing his way to the basket.
Watford, who at one point in the second half missed four straight lane floaters, finished with 23 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. He relished the challenge of taking on the Gamecocks’ front line almost by himself.
“I try to be built for this, I pride myself on wanting the ball in my hands when the game is on the line to make plays,” said Watford, who made 9 of 10 free throws as did Thomas. “I think I did a good job of that, making free throws and making baskets.”
LSU coach Will Wade was more than happy to run his offense through Watford knowing every possession in the waning minutes was crucial.
“We were able to play through Trendon in the post,” Wade said. “That’s where the mismatches were. That’s where we were able to make things happen. You have to play through your hot hand.”
The Gamecocks (3-3, 1-1) got some sizzling first-half shooting from junior guard AJ Lawson and torrid second half inside offense from junior forward Keyshawn Bryant.
Lawson scored 18 of his 22 points in the first half when he hit 4 of 8 3s. South Carolina bucketed 6 of its first 11 shots and three consecutive 3-pointers in a 57-second span including two by Lawson put LSU in a 19-8 hole with 12:38 left before halftime.
The Tigers kept chasing and chasing the Gamecocks, who stayed ahead most of the second half thanks to Bryant, who scored most of his game-high 26 points slipping into the lane through cracks in LSU’s 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone defenses.
It was a gritty effort by South Carolina, considering head coach Frank Martin, assistant coach Chuck Martin and staff member Doug Edwards didn’t make the trip to Baton Rouge because they are in COVID-19 protocols.
The Gamecocks were guided by assistant coach Bruce Shingler, who almost brought home the win.
“I thought we gave a valiant effort,” Shingler said. “I thought we played their tails off given the circumstances of the last two weeks (in which South Carolina had to postpone three straight SEC games). I thought our guys laid it on the line.”
Wade, feeling very fortunate his Tigers got the victory, concurred.
“South Carolina was game from the get-go and ready to go,” he said. “They played tremendously all night long. We were just fortunate enough to make some shots in the second half and make a few things happen. We found a way.”