It wasn't a picture perfect game for LSU on Saturday night but late game defense and clutch shot making helped the Tigers escape a very tough South Carolina team 85-80.
LSU's (10-2, 5-1) ability to get to the free throw line by attacking the rim late as well as making some critical defensive stops ultimately led to the win. The Tigers went 24-of-30 from the charity stripe on the evening, with 10 of them coming in the final five minutes. The Tigers' defense held the Gamecocks without a field goal for the final 7:47 stretch as the clock dwindled down, including an 0-for-9 stretch.
“We knew coming in they were going to be very physical,” guard Cam Thomas said. “It was going to turn into a lot of fouls, a free-throw shooting contest. Make our free throws and close the game out. We already knew that coming in.”
South Carolina made every shot difficult for LSU in the first half with its length and physicality, which have been a staple for the program under coach Frank Martin. While Martin wasn't in attendance because of COVID-19 protocols, the Gamecocks jumped out to a 19-8 lead as the Tigers started an abysmal 3-for-13 from the field, forcing three turnovers and three blocks in those early minutes.
The Gamecocks entered Saturday evening's game playing just twice since Dec. 5 due to COVID-19 protocols and were even down a few rotational pieces against the purple and gold. But the defense remained unaltered and an efficient night on offense kept this one in their control for most of the game.
After the sluggish start, LSU was able to settle down by putting some pressure on the Gamecocks' offense, which came in as one of the worst in the conference. The defensive pressure from South Carolina remained elite but the Tigers were able to find more of a rhythm thanks to strong scoring spurts from Javonte Smart and freshman Cam Thomas.
Smart finished with 15 points with all but one of them coming in the second half while the freshman Thomas was able to score 25 points. The biggest burst came from the junior Smart, who scored 14 of the Tigers' first 26 points of the second half and gave LSU its first lead on one of his four triples.
Gamecocks guard AJ Lawson and forward Keyshwn Bryant paced their team throughout the evening as he came in averaging 17.8 points a contest, sixth most in the conference. Lawson scored 13 of South Carolina's first 19 points and finished the game with 22 on the evening while Bryant poured it on in the second half with a career high 26 points.
A game controlled by South Carolina most of the way all of the sudden became an entertaining back and forth for the final 11 minutes of the game. After Smart's game leading three with 12:07 to go, it was the Gamecocks who quickly regained control by going up by as many as eight.
Trailing 72-64, the Tigers responded with a 12-2 run of their own led by a pair of threes from Thomas and Darius Days and four free throws from Trendon Watford. Watford really controlled the paint down the stretch and finished with 23 points on the night, including an efficient 9-of-10 showing at the free throw line.
“We found a way. South Carolina played great. We had no answer for (AJ) Lawson in the first half. Did a better job in the second half. I was proud of our guys. Good team effort. Just happy to win. It’s tough to win in the SEC,” Will Wade said. “I give Bruce (Shingler) and Coach (Frank) Martin, their staff and their team a lot of credit. They were game from the get-go and ready to go. 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.”
LSU will now prepare for its toughest battle to date when the Tigers welcome a red hot Alabama Crimson Tide, the only remaining undefeated team in the SEC.