SEC tournament notebook: LSU hoping third time's the charm against Alabama in title game
Blake Lovell • 3/13/2021 in Basketball
The two regular season games between Alabama and LSU weren't pretty. At least not for the Tigers.
Nate Oats' team, which rallied for a 73-68 win against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals, didn't need a rally in either matchup against LSU. The Tide set an SEC record with 23 3-pointers in a 105-75 victory in Baton Rouge back on Jan. 19, then followed it up with a 78-60 win in Tuscaloosa two weeks later.
For the Tigers to make the most of their first SEC title game appearance since 1993, Will Wade and company will need to find a different approach against the league's regular season champions.
"Yeah, I mean, we've got to obviously do something quite a bit different than we've done the first two times," Wade said. "They've absolutely blasted us. We've got to change some things up and figure some things out. We'll work on some things and we'll put the best plan together we can as quick as we can."
If there's something LSU can lean on, it's a much-improved defensive effort in its past four games.
The Tigers' last four opponents - three of them NCAA Tournament-caliber teams in Missouri, Ole Miss, and Arkansas - combined to shoot just 39.6 percent from the field. In the Tigers' victory over the Razorbacks on Saturday, the latter shot 41.6 percent from the floor but only made 6 of its 26 attempts from beyond the arc - the one area LSU has excelled in on defense this season in ranking 17th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense.
For a team that ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in defensive efficiency this season, that's an impressive feat. What sparked the turnaround for LSU?
"Well, that's a great question," Wade said. "Any time you can hold them under 40 and win the field goal stat, you're going to give yourself a great chance to win, especially with as potent and dangerous as we are offensively. Really been staying in front of our man. We haven't given up nearly as much in transition, which has been huge. We've been giving up a ton in transition, but we haven't given up nearly as much in transition which has helped our defense. We've rebounded the ball a little bit better.
"They got going a little bit at the end of the first half. Ethan Henderson, he's been a thorn in our side. He played well against us two years ago in Fayetteville. He got going against us on the offensive glass. When you don't give up a bunch of offensive rebounds, we gave up some today, your defensive numbers are a little bit better. Our halfcourt defense has been fairly solid all season."
Another key to LSU's success, strangely enough, revolves around how many points one particular player scores. Darius Days notched 13 points and eight rebounds in the win against Arkansas, pushing the Tigers' record to 18-1 when he scores in double figures.
Their record when he either scores in single digits or doesn't play? 0-7.
However, even Days knows it's the defense that is responsible for LSU making a run to the championship game.
"We're playing defense," Days said. "The guards are playing great defense. Cam is playing pretty good defense. Trendon is playing good defense. Everybody is playing great defense. Off the bench, that's a big spark to the defense as well. Everybody is doing their job. If everybody does their job, we should come home with a championship."
Getting to the championship game figures to be significant for the Tigers' NCAA Tournament seeding. But it's also significant for a player like Ja'Vaonte Smart.
Smart did a bit of everything in his team's semifinal victory, posting 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals while playing all 40 minutes. Cam Thomas also played every single second of the game and led the way with 21 points.
The title game opportunity means a little extra for Smart, who's one of the elder statesmen of the LSU roster.
"It means a lot," Smart said. "This is what I came to LSU for. This is what I came to do. I like winning. I love winning. I think just the winning culture. I'm honored to be a part of this. We got many more games to go. This is one of the steps, winning this game. It was a big win for us to get under our belt. Bringing the ship back home would mean a lot to all of us."
Like everyone else, Days is expecting Sunday's matchup against Alabama to be must-see TV for college basketball fans.
"Like I said yesterday, bring your popcorn, it's going to be a great one," he said. "I feel like it's going to be one for the ages. It's going to be a heavyweight fight, punch to punch. We got to play great defense. We know they going to play great defense like they've been doing the whole year. I feel like it's going to be a shootout tomorrow. It's going to be a great game."
For it to be a great game, it'll depend on whether the Tigers can continue their upswing on defense.
If they can, there's little doubt that LSU is capable of not only winning the SEC Tournament title but also winning multiple games in the NCAA Tournament.
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