How bad has it gotten for LSU? Bad enough that a 25-point loss at home to arguably the best team in the SEC this season is almost acceptable.
Welcome to the Tigers’ new reality, 2016-17 version.
No. 19/20-ranked South Carolina plowed to a 23-point lead in the first half, weathered an admirable charge from the overmatched Tigers at the outset of the second half and then methodically pulled away for an 88-63 triumph Wednesday at the PMAC.
While double-digit blowout losses have become almost expected for LSU (9-12, 1-8) during an eight-game losing streak, it was semi palatable Wednesday that the Tigers made a lunge in the first few minutes after halftime to pull within 52-40 on Antonio Blakeney’s layup at the 15:55 juncture.
LSU got that close with an 8-0 burst, but as has become typical, the energy to close the gap was paid with a long defensive lapse – this one covering 3:53 as the Gamecocks (18-4, 8-1) rattled off 13 unanswered points to re-establish complete control.
Thus the sad, but true realization: The Tigers played Carolina even the rest of the night to keep the deficit at 25 points and that represents a silver lining, no matter how tarnished it might be.
“At the beginning, we did not play at the level that we needed to, neither offensively taking care of the basketball nor grinding against their defensive pressure,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “On the defensive end of the floor, we did not make it tough enough for them in the first half, allowing them to shoot 57%. We were not aggressive enough, not playing at the level or competing at the level that you need to against a team like this to get a victory.”
As promising as the mini-burst in the second half was, Wednesday’s game was never really in doubt after the Gamecocks, who remained tied for the SEC lead, scored 14 seconds in.
South Carolina didn’t play all that well and didn’t need to. The Gamecocks shot 39.3% (11 for 28) in the second half, connected on only 33.3% (7 for 21) from 3-point range and turned the ball over 14 times.
The Tigers were just worse.
LSU managed only 40% from the floor (24 for 60) overall, missed 14 of 20 3-point tries (the Tigers were 2-for-10 after halftime) and lost the ball 22 times, leading to a whopping 34 Gamecocks’ points.
Blakeney struggled badly against the Carolina defense, the best in the SEC, and didn’t score a point in the first half on the way to just 9 points on 3-for-12 shooting. Brandon Sampson compensated to a degree with 14 points in the initial 20 minutes and then managed only 2 more.
Freshmen Skylar Mays and Wayde Sims again showed some promise – Mays with 11 points and a pair of 3-pointers, while Sims scored 8 and led all rebounders with 11
But the Gamecocks’ aggressive defense was just too much for LSU to handle.
Every passing lane had a hand in it, every shot was challenged and Carolina controlled the glass most of the night, choking off second chances.
“They’re known for their defense; they’re a good defensive team,” Mays said. “They put you in spots where they can make defensive plays. We fell into their traps.
“It's a mixture of all of those things. You can tell they really care about it, and as a result, they’re a really good defensive team.”
Which LSU won’t get mistaken for any time soon.
The Gamecocks entered the game averaging 72.1 points a game but generated 50 by halftime, something several LSU foes have checked off their to-do list this season.
Carolina shot 57.6% (19 for 33) on the way to a 50-32 lead, with 10 hoops on layups leading to 30 points in the paint in the first half.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Gamecocks’ coach Frank Martin said. “Any time you go on the road and win, you did something right. Our guys played phenomenally the last two days in practice. It was some of the best two practices we had, and we came out and had a great shoot-around (Wednesday). We came out and we played that way. We were rock solid.”
Four of USC’s starters scored 16 points or more, with Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier leading the way with 17 apiece. That quartet combined to knock down 23-of-40 field goals and 16-of-21 free throws.
Sampson led LSU with 16 points.
The Tigers try again to end their season-puncturing skid on Saturday when Texas A&M visits the PMAC. The Aggies demolished LSU 92-62 on Jan. 11.