Best in the West

When the Tigers took the floor of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Saturday little did they know that they could clinch a tie for the SEC West title with a victory over Auburn. When Mississippi State fell to Alabama in double overtime a win over Auburn would give LSU at least a share of the crown and that is exactly how it played out as Trent Johnson's club prevailed, 79-72.


No. 23 ranked LSU (23-4, 11-1) got a gutsy performance from point guard Bo Spencer combined with a balanced scoring attack that saw all five starters score in double figures led by Marcus Thornton’s game-high 25 points. Spencer and Tasmin Mitchell each chipped in 14, while Chris Johnson and Garrett Temple scored 12 apiece.


Balance was key for the Tigers but not nearly as much as their ability to knock down free throws combined with Auburn’s poor free throw shooting.


In their last outing against Arkansas, LSU hit just 50 percent from the charity stripe (12-24), but it was a different story against Auburn as they knocked down 21-of-22 from the line with eight successful shots in the final 56 seconds. Auburn, on the other hand, went to the line 13 times and only connected on seven with three big misses in the last five minutes of play.


“After shooting 50 percent on the road you’d like to think we’d bounce back and shoot a better percentage,” Trent Johnson said. “That’s the good thing about this group in general. When they don’t have success in any facet of the game, without us plotting and without me addressing it, they sort of address it on their own and try to get it corrected. We had some guys making a conscious effort in practice and in shoot around, concentrating on shooting free throws.”


Something else that the Tigers tried to concentrate on was defending Auburn on the perimeter. The War Eagles were averaging a league-best 23.5 three-point attempts a game but they attempted only 13 and knocked down five on the evening.


“They had a lot fewer three-point attempts because we couldn’t keep them out of the lane,” LSU's headman said. “We tried to do a lot but the bottom line is they are good. Their perimeter players are good. Waller, (No.) 24, is very impressive off the catch…We knew we had to take the three away but I was kind of caught off guard with how they beat us off the dribble and in transition.”


Waller was one of three Auburn players to score in double figures with 17, while Korvotney Barber led them with 19 and DeWayne Reed added 16.


Spencer started quickly for the Tigers by scoring seven quick points after missing the last two games with a sprained ankle. He hit 5 of 9 from the field in 28 minutes of action.


“It meant a lot,” Trent Johnson said of having Spencer back in the lineup. “Bo was able to get us into a rhythm. He was able to back them off initially because to start the game we couldn’t stop them from scoring. Bo’s ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter really helped us tonight.”


Spencer helped LSU jump out to an 18-8 lead with 14:17 left in the first half, but Auburn went on a 10-2 run that made it 20-18. From that point on Auburn did just enough to prevent LSU from getting too much of a cushion. The Tigers had several chances to turn a seven point lead into a double-digit advantage, but Auburn would always respond and keep things close.


After trailing since the 18:58 mark of the first half, Auburn finally took the lead with Waller’s pull-up jumper that gave them a 54-52 advantage with 10:42 remaining. Another Waller jumper gave Auburn a 56-52 lead but it was short lived due to LSU crashing the boards. Mitchell and Quintin Thornton both pulled down offensive rebounds and put them back in. Garrett Temple then knocked down a pair of free throws and LSU never trailed again.


Auburn did manage to tie it at 60 but Marcus Thornton knocked down a three to retake the lead. Rasheem Barnett hit one free throw on Auburn’s next possession but as was the norm for the entire night he missed the second.


Chris Johnson scored on LSU's next possession to make it a four point game at 65-61 with 5:15 left and Auburn had a chance to get it down to two, but once again DeWayne Reed made the first but missed the second free throw.


“Free throws have been hurting us all season,” Waller said. “Coach (Lebo) said we have to hit free throws to win games and we didn’t hit them. That really hurt us down the stretch and that’s what cost us the game.”


Auburn got to within three points on three occasions in the final 2:40 and had one chance to tie the game at 71 at the 1:01 mark, but Lucas Hargrove’s three-pointer was way off the mark and Temple was good on his two free throws.


With the win, LSU has earned the top seed from the Western Division side for the SEC tournament and one more victory will give Trent Johnson and his team the outright division title.


But just like it has been all season long, there is no talk of championships despite what LSU accomplished on Saturday.


“We’re just playing good basketball and there’s more out there for us to accomplish and achieve,” Johnson said. “I’m happy for them but all I do is base my feelings with us winning the West or tying on how they feel. In that locker room there’s nobody wanting to cut down nets. There’s an approach and business-like attitude that there is more we need to achieve.”


LSU returns to action on Tuesday for a nationally televised matchup against Florida. The Gators (21-6, 8-4) trail the Tigers by three games in the race for the SEC title and are tied with Kentucky (19-8, 8-4) and South Carolina (19-6, 8-4) in the Eastern Division race.


LSU's magic number to clinch the overall league title is now two games.

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