The Tigers (19-4, 7-1 SEC) sputtered out of the gates as Alabama (13-10, 3-6 SEC) jumped out to an 11-2 lead and led 13-7 before Thornton came alive and ran off 14 straight points for the Tigers.
It took Thornton a little time to get his first shot off, but once he got going he was too much for Alabama’s defense. The Baton rouge-native hit 8 of 10 from the field in the first half and nailed his only three-point attempt to finish with his 20 first half points.
Thornton, who is averaging 21.6 points a game in SEC play, scored only two points in the second half to finish with 22, but he grabbed six rebounds and drew praise from head coach Trent Johnson for another solid all-around performance.
“I don’t think Marcus has gotten enough credit for how complete of a player he has become in the last two or three weeks,” LSU head coach Trent Johnson said. “It really bothered him what happened in Tuscaloosa. He’s made a conscious effort to work hard everyday in practice and he’s made a conscious effort to bypass shots in practice to get his teammates shots. He’s a very efficient basketball player right now.”
While LSU got off to a slow start, Alabama was out and running from the start. At the 8:37 mark of the first half, the Crimson Tide was up 22-18 and had not trailed for the entire half.
Things went downhill quickly, though, as the Crimson Tide limped through a 4:49 drought where LSU went on a 17-0 run that gave the Tigers a 35-22 lead. Thornton, Tasmin Mitchell and Chris Johnson scored all 17 during that run with Thornton hitting seven and Mitchell knocking down a pair of three-pointers from the top of the key. Johnson hit a short jumper and connected on a layup for the other two baskets.
Alabama went a total of 5:53 without scoring a field goal until Justin Knox knocked down a basket. That was the way it went for the Crimson Tide when LSU went on its run and it never got any better as the Tigers cranked up the intensity on both ends of the floor after the lethargic start.
“We came out onto the court without intensity,” senior guard Garrett Temple said. “Coach Johnson was a little upset so he took some of us out of the game. The second string then went in and helped create the intensity that we needed.”
Along with Marcus Thornton’s scoring, LSU got another double-double from Mitchell as the junior from Denham Springs scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Temple was the only other player to reach double figures for the Tigers with 10 points, while Johnson scored six, pulled down seven boards and blocked three shots.
Point guard Bo Spencer had another rough outing as he rattled home LSU's first bucket on a short jumper, but that was all as he went 1 of 6 from the floor and finished with only two points after going scoreless in Wednesday’s win over Georgia.
Alabama was led by Mikhail Torrance’s 12 points, while Senario Hillman, who led Alabama with 24 points when the Crimson Tide beat LSU on January 11, had only 11 this time around with nine in the second half.
“It was a tough game,” said Alabama interim head coach Philip Pearson. “Of course we knew they had a good basketball team and we came in here and got off to a good start in the first six to eight minutes of the game and had a six or seven point lead there, but we just couldn’t hold it. I thought LSU did a great job defensively in both halves.”
The closest Alabama got in the first half was within eight points at 36-28 and the biggest LSU lead was 66-43 at the 9:03 mark of the second half.
The Tigers were able to build that lead behind Temple’s scoring as the senior from Baton Rouge scored all 10 of his points in the second half and knocked down a pair of treys.
LSU was able to maintain the big margin after Johnson pulled his starters and went to his bench. The Crimson Tide got the lead down 14 at 76-62, but that was as close they could whittle it down to.
The 20 points from the bench was the most for LSU since December 13 when the bench contributed 42 points in the 87-41 win over Grambling State. Getting his starters some rest with the shortened week ahead was important to Johnson, but getting some minutes against quality competition for some of the reserves was just as important.
The fact that Alabama was able to take a bite out of the large cushion didn’t put a damper on what Johnson considered a good showing from his backups.
“You have to look at the whole picture here,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to come out and not play then be in a situation like that against a caliber team when they have their best players out there. I’m very critical but under those circumstances I think they played well.”
LSU shot 45 percent for the game and held Alabama to only 34.4 percent shooting from the floor. The Tigers also won the battle on the boards 42-37, but the 17 assists against 16 turnovers is something that the Tigers must address according to the headman.
LSU remains one game ahead of Mississippi State and Florida in the overall league standings with a trip to Starkville on the schedule for Wednesday. That road game against the Bulldogs is what Johnson has not shifted his focus to.
“Mississippi State has been playing really well and not to take anything away from anyone in the league, and certainly not our basketball team, but I think (Mississippi State) is playing as well as anyone in the league, let along the country,” Johnson said.
With the win, LSU improved to 19-4 on the year and the Tigers certainly have the attention of everyone else in the SEC with a 7-1 league mark at the halfway point on the conference schedule.
Now, some are wondering if this is the week that the Tigers get more attention from the national media when the polls are released shortly.
Some, however, does not include the Tigers themselves.
“To me it’s not all about being ranked,” Mitchell said. “It’s about playing out this conference whether we get the respect or not. Everybody would love having respect, but I don’t mind being the underdog. That’s how we were when we went to the Final Four…We just want to sneak up on people and tell them we’re ready to play.”
“It’s just a number,” added Johnson. “It’s just a number.”