Well this one certainly didn't disappoint. The two teams spent the majority of the game trading buckets in what was a physical and entertaining heavy-weight fight. A&M played the role of a 15th ranked team in the country well, and LSU showed how at their best, they could be worthy of such a ranking as well. The Aggies turned the ball over in bunches early, but shored up their ball security in the second half while the Tigers had careless giveaways throughout. Only one team could come out on top, and the Tigers made the necessary defensive plays in the last five minutes to win the game, which is huge for the NCAA resume. The Tigers should be dancing.
The first half saw the Tigers jump out to a big lead, before A&M steadied themselves and caught up around the 10-minute mark. Tiger defense looked good being aggressive early, but backfired due to the lack of a rim protection, forcing Jones into a more neutral scheme. LSU has played more energized on the perimeter though, especially Quarterman, who helped to create turn overs with some well-timed doubles at the elbows. Victor picked up two early fouls, and as he headed to the bench, the momentum shifted A&M's way. This has unfortunately been a trend for this team, as he's played very well across the board but is too apt to pick up early fouls. When Victor's out there, this is a tournament team no doubt. With him off the floor? They just can't function in the half-court without his post offense to fall-back on. It's their key to salvaging points out of that archaic half-court system Jones has them running, and he's got to be better about being more aware of down and distance, so to speak. Save those fouls for the last ten minutes.
The second half was a back and forth heavyweight fight, as Danuel House (and his ridiculous half and half haircut) pretty much singlehandedly kept the Aggies in the game, and Victor returned to steady the Tigers. There were a couple points were things slowed down for LSU, and Doug Gottlieb did a good job during the first half of pointing out how in the half-court the Tigers don't go side to side enough (that is, work the ball around the perimeter more diligently.) They stick with the first side far too often, which is why its so easy to shut them down with a zone, which Billy Kennedy obviously did for stretches. Hornsby's hustle plays during that period to create extra possessions were invaluable for a shaky defensive team. They made just enough plays and hit just enough free throws in the last 5 minutes to seal it. But this was a close one.
Looking to get Victor established early and often as always was key. The Tigers were aggressive early in the shot clock in the half-court, which went well during the first half, but became sloppier as the game went on. Simmons was much more aggressive looking to score early, establishing position, and forcing doubles, which is something we've all been waiting to see. That's exactly what this team needs, especially during periods when Victor is on the bench. Benny had an excellent game overall, finding guys in good spots late in the game, and finally showing that appropriate level of aggression on the block.
Blakeney played well also, and he's really coming along in this second half of the season. This is particularly encouraging for LSU, as he's the piece that can put them overtop in close games with his scoring acumen. He's hitting threes in big spots, getting his in-between game going, and locked in on defense (he had a key deflection in the last minute that sealed that game.) I really look forward to what he's going to be next year, when he's got the unquestioned green-light and he can be a real leader on the floor.
The mystery of Elbert as the first big off the bench continues. Jones has failed to establish a reliable rotation, which has had adverse effects on the players (especially Sampson whose confidence seems shot.) Additionally, poor free-throw shooting continues to hurt Tigers, missing the front end of 1 and 1s and key freebies throughout the first half. Hit those at a higher clip, and this isn't such an edge-of-your-seat-win. LSU needs all the cushion they can get.
Jalen Jones being hampered with a bad hip was big for LSU, as the Aggies offense was noticeably out of sync. While the Tigers did allow too many corner threes, the A&M offense was sloppy from start to finish and committed an egregious amount of unforced turnovers. Still, this is a big home win.
Alas, they escaped with a win, this a huge one for the Tigers. I had said that only 2 of 4 wins against these marquee SEC teams (USC, A&M, Florida, Kentucky) wouldn't be enough, but if they can go into Lexington and slay the Wildcat beast, they'll be in tourney no questions asked, likely with a decent seed. This was impressive, wire to wire, victory against a legit (though reeling) NCAA team. Some had A&M as a 3 seed as recently as Monday. Finally, we can forget the pre-Victor and Hornsby period of dogshit, as the committee likely wont factor that into their decision making.
But we're not out of the water yet. Time to get right back to work, and set the sights forward on closing out this month strong before heading to Lexington for a king-of-the-SEC-mountain showdown. Should be an exciting end to the season.