NASHVILLE, Tenn. — LSU senior guard Josh Gray was rewarded with his eighth start of the season in the Tigers’ opening game of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Friday.
In part because of Gray’s play on both ends of the floor in fourth-seeded LSU’s 84-75 win over Tennessee, Johnny Jones’ team will be around for a semifinals matchup with No. 1 seed Texas A&M at noon Saturday.
Gray, whose only start since Jan. 23 was on Senior Night, got the nod Friday and did the job with a solid defensive effort, which was what he was in the lineup for anyway, and threw in 11 points and had three assists as a bonus in the Tigers’ win.
Jones made the decision to go with Gray over Jalyn Patterson in practice on Thursday considering Tennessee point guard Kevin Punter was out with a stress fracture in his foot.
“They’re without a traditional point guard right now and we wanted to extend our defense,” Jones explained. “(Forward) Armani Moore is bringing the ball up and Josh is our best defender with his quickness.”
Moore had 17 points in an 81-65 blowout of LSU on Feb. 20 in Knoxville, but had just six Friday in going 1-of-5 from the floor. Tennessee managed just 17 points in the first 15 minutes Friday.
Gray said he felt comfortable when Jones told him he was going to start.
“I’m only here for one thing: that’s to win, so I don’t get involved in me starting or not starting,” Gray said. “I’ve never been down on myself all year. So when coach put me in the starting lineup, I just looked at it as another opportunity to run my team and get another win.”
LSU freshman guard Antonio Blakeney knocked down all nine of his free-throw attempts Friday, pushing his streak to 28 consecutive makes.
Blakeney made his last nine in a win over Florida, then was 6-of-6 against Missouri and 4-of-4 at Kentucky before extending the streak to 28 with a 9-of-9 afternoon against Tennessee.
It’s LSU’s second-longest streak in a single season behind the school-record 35 in a row Chris Jackson had in 1989-90.Eddie Palubinskas made 31 in a row, but that stretched over two seasons in the early 1970s.
Blakeney is now hitting 74.8 percent from the stripe for the season (86-of-115). Before that, he was shooting just 66.7 percent.
All fouled up
LSU forward Aaron Epps, who came in when Ben Simmons picked up his second foul in the first half, committed three fouls of his own in an 84-second span and took a seat on the bench as well.
The Tigers committed 12 fouls in the first half with Epps topping the list. Simmons, Gray, Patterson and Craig Victor all had two each, while Tim Quarterman had the other one.
LSU had eight fouls in the second half, but didn’t pick up its first one until 10:23 was left when Simmons was tagged for his third.
Stanley Roberts, who averaged 14.1 points and 9.8 rebounds a game for LSU in the 1989-90 season, was honored as part of the SEC’s Basketball Legends program during halftime of Friday’s game with Tennessee.
This is the 18th year the SEC has honored a living legend from each school during the league’s postseason tournament.
In going with Gray on Friday, Jones has now used 15 different starting lineups in 32 games. … LSU improved to 19-19 in its opening game at the league’s championship event since the tournament’s revival in 1979 and is now 47-55 overall in 57 appearances. … LSU play-by-play man Jim Hawthorne was recognized at midcourt and was presented with a trophy by Commissioner Greg Sankey before the game. Hawthorne, who has been behind the microphone for 36 years, is retiring at the end of the season.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.