Survive and advance.
LSU did exactly that Saturday afternoon in Nashville as the No. 3 seeded Tigers knocked off the No. 2 Arkansas Razorbacks 78-71 to advance to Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game.
Behind 21 points from Cameron Thomas and 19 from Javonte Smart, the Tigers took the season series from Arkansas and will get its third shot at Alabama tomorrow. It’s the first SEC Tournament championship game for LSU since 1993 and the Tigers have their sights set on its first tournament title since 1980.
The much maligned LSU defense played arguably its best game of the season at the most pivotal moment. The Tigers held Arkansas to shoot 6-26 from three, forced 16 turnovers and scored 21 points off those turnovers.
In the second half is when LSU hit a new level defensively. The Tigers held Arkansas without a field goal for nearly 10 entire minutes, which LSU used to its advantage. Over those 10 minutes, LSU outscored Arkansas 22-7 and turned a three-point deficit into a game-high 12 point lead with 7:25 to play.
But Arkansas, winners of 12 straight conference games, wouldn’t go away and the Razorbacks responded with a run of its own. Arkansas outscored LSU 19-8 over the next seven minutes to get within a point, 72-71, with 25 seconds remaining.
Unlike LSU’s meltdown against Texas Tech, the Tigers wouldn’t surrender this lead and calmly scored six unanswered points to get out of Bridgestone Arena with a 78-71 win and a date with Alabama tomorrow at noon.
Both Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart played all 40 minutes and led LSU to the precipice of a conference championship. The duo combined for 40 points, and Thomas was lethal from three hit four of six attempts, while also a perfect five for five at the free throw line.
Smart, the SEC leader in three-point shooting, wasn’t his usual self from distance only making one of five attempts, but he accounted for four of LSU’s eight assists, grabbed four rebounds and stole the ball twice. Like Thomas, Smart made all of his free throws.
For the second day in a row, freshman guard Eric Gaines came off the bench and was a real contributor in crunch time. Gaines scored 10 points, highlighted by a three to give LSU a 70-60 edge with about 2:45 to play. But Gaines stood out most defensively thanks to his long arms wreaking havoc on Arkansas’s passing lanes. Gaines was a team-best +15 and it’s getting to the point where Will Wade can’t keep him off the floor.
Darius Days found redemption after his ugly 0-8 shooting effort in the second game against Arkansas back on February 27. Days scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds but was limited to just 28 minutes due to foul trouble.
While Days found personal redemption Saturday, LSU will try to redeem themselves as a unit tomorrow at noon against Alabama. Not only is LSU 0-2 against the Tide this year, they’ve lost both games by a combined 48 points.
Sunday will be a landmark day for both sides. LSU is playing for its first tournament title since 1980, while Bama hasn’t won since 1991. Alabama had to overcome a 15-point second half deficit against Tennessee to advance.
Tipoff is set for noon, and regardless of the result LSU will find out its NCAA Tournament seed a few hours later as tomorrow is Selection Sunday. Here’s hoping this time tomorrow we can celebrate both an NCAA tournament bid and the program’s first conference tournament title in 41 years.
Boot up, y’all.