A frisky South Carolina team missing head coach Frank Martin gave LSU all it wanted, but the Tigers rallied thanks to a combined 48 points from Cam Thomas and Trendon Watford and superb defense late.
LSU had to dig itself out of several holes Saturday. South Carolina led for nearly 34 minutes and was up by as many as 11. LSU was able to make it a one-possession game numerous times in the first half but Carolina answered each and every time.
In the second half, South Carolina would build up its lead to nine points but LSU wouldn’t allow the Gamecocks to get back up double digits. Free throws, particularly from Thomas and Watford—both of whom were 9/10 from the line—kept LSU in the game.
Javonte Smart (15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists) would give LSU a 58-57 edge—its first lead of the game— at the 12:09 mark in the second half. LSU would surrender that lead immediately and in a blink Carolina was back on top 66-60.
That’s when Trendon Watford and Cam Thomas took over. Watford scored 10 of his 23 points over the final 10 minutes, while Thomas got nine of his 25. The duo combined for 48 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
“Trendon did a great job all night,” Will Wade said. “They were collapsing on him. He did a good job finishing. He did a great job at the free-throw line. Nine of ten from the free-throw line. He was really really good. You have to play through your hot hand. Then Cam was able to make plays down the stretch off the ball screens with Trendon also. It was a team effort. We were able to play through Trendon in the post. That’s where the mismatches were. That’s where we were able to make things happen.”
LSU put the clamps on South Carolina, holding the Gamecocks to no field goals over the game’s final 7:47. South Carolina ended the game making only one of its final 13 shots.
“We talk about defense. We know we can score the ball,” Javonte Smart said. “They were getting some buckets; some back-door looks. We just wanted to lock in when we were down five. We just wanted to get back in that lead, and cut it and tie the game, and on to play defense.”
The win wasn’t nearly as pretty as LSU’s wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss were. Carolina out-rebounded LSU and did a better job distributing the ball: 18 assists on 31 makes compared to 10 assists on 27 makes for LSU. The Gamecock bench, specifically Keyshawn Bryant, dominated compared to LSU’s. Carolina got 29 points, 26 from Bryant, from the bench while LSU only had six. Bryant, despite being 6’6”, also blocked five shots.
But what saved LSU was its ability to get to the free throw line. LSU shot 32 free throws, making 24, while Carolina only got 14 attempts.
“Coach Wade, he told us we’re going to shoot a lot of free throws in this game,” Trendon Watfor said. “We did. I’ve been working on my free throws, all summer, all offseason. Every time I get up to the line it’s like I’m in the gym by myself. I keep locking in on that. We’re a great free-throw shooting team and we’re going to get better on that.”
LSU (10-2, 5-1) took sole possession of second place in the SEC and will play for first place Tuesday night at home against Alabama.