NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ben Simmons sat for about as long as he played on Friday in LSU’s SEC tournament quarterfinal against Tennessee, but the Tigers found another gear late to finally shake the determined Volunteers and win 84-75 at Bridgestone Arena.
Simmons was on the bench for more than 15 minutes in the first half after picking up two early offensive fouls. He finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, but it was his supporting cast that was most responsible for LSU rebounding from a 33-32 halftime deficit to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive. The Tigers (19-13) likely need to win the SEC tournament to make the field. Next up is the top seed, Texas A&M, on Saturday.
LSU had lost four of its past six games entering the tournament and looked anything but inspired in the first half. Part of that was Simmons being on the bench, but the other Tigers didn’t play with much of an edge. With Simmons back on the floor in the second half, they still had a difficult time pulling away from the Vols, who were playing their third game in three days. But LSU put together a 10-0 run in the final five minutes and escaped.
Tennessee had pinned an 81-65 beating on LSU in Knoxville back on Feb. 20, the kind of inexplicable loss that has hounded the Tigers this season.
Turning point: Tennessee led 57-56 with 6:37 left on Admiral Schofield’s free throw, and the game was tied at 59 with 5:46 left on a Schofield jumper. That’s when LSU made its 10-0 run. Tim Quarterman capped the binge with a 3-pointer. He was 3-for-7 from 3-point range, but the Tigers were just 5-for-17 as a team. The Vols were even worse (7-for-29).
The “other” freshman: There’s been so much focus on Simmons, but fellow freshman Antonio Blakeney might have been the difference in the game. He played all 40 minutes, led LSU with 22 points, and only turned the ball over one time. He also made three key free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt late, and made a tough driving layup with 1:46 remaining to make it a nine-point game.
Tired legs: The Vols (15-19) looked tired down the stretch. Several of their 3-point attempts were short, and the Tigers looked like the fresher team when it counted. Tennessee, playing without injured leading scorer Kevin Punter, had won games on Wednesday and Thursday — only the third time in the past 25 years that the Vols had won two or more games in the SEC tournament.