For the first time in three outings, the LSU basketball team was challenged in the early stages in the second half of a game Thursday night.
After putting away McNeese State and Kennesaw State with quick outbursts coming out of halftime in the first two games, No. 23 LSU was forced to work a little harder against a pesky South Alabama team in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU, which jumped out to a 40-28 halftime lead, twice came close to seeing a healthy double-digit lead slip away in the first nine minutes of the second half.
That’s when freshmen Antonio Blakeney and Ben Simmons stepped in.
They provided the necessary offensive spark to help unbeaten LSU win its third game in a row with a 78-66 decision over South Alabama (1-2).
Simmons, who had a 9-for-14 shooting night, finished with career highs of 23 points and 16 rebounds. He added three assists and two steals, while Blakeney contributed 22 points, matching his career best.
Guard Josh Gray came off the bench for 11 points after guard Tim Quarterman picked up two quick fouls and sat out the final 17 minutes of the first half, and center Elbert Robinson III had a career-high 10 points in making 5 of 8 shots before he suffered a left ankle injury with 11:15 to play.
LSU coach Johnny Jones said Robinson was in a walking boot after the game. He will likely be questionable at best for the Tigers’ next game with Marquette on Monday night in the semifinals of the Legends Classic in Brooklyn.
After South Alabama pulled to within 11 points at 44-33 on a 3-pointer by Nick Stover with 17:06 to play, Blakeney and Simmons went off and helped LSU regain control.
Blakeney immediately drained a 3-point shot, and Simmons — who drew three fouls in a 41-second span early in the second half — followed with a quick basket before Blakeney knocked down two more 3-pointers, pushing LSU’s advantage to 19 at 55-36 with 14:41 left.
“That kind of game is always good for you,” Jones said. “It’s important to have those types of challenges. It’s nice to be up by 20 or 30 points, but this kind of game you get to see how guys respond. Tonight, we were able to settle in and respond.”
“It’s good, especially because we have Marquette coming up (Monday night),” Simmons said of being challenged. “That team was a better team than we have played in the last two games, but we know we still have things to work on.”
One of them is rebounding, which has been a concern for Jones in the early part of the season. The Tigers were outrebounded for the second time in two games 39-37 by South Alabama despite Simmons’ 16 rebounds.
When South Alabama made another run and trimmed the deficit to 10 at 57-47 with 11:00 remaining, Simmons had three consecutive baskets to stretch the lead to 63-47 with 9:57 to play.
“My focus was just being aggressive, being assertive and sticking to it the whole game,” Simmons said. “Once I started driving, I stuck to it.”
Simmons started the spurt with a one-handed fallaway jumper across his body while dribbling through the lane, then had back-to-back dunks on LSU’s next two trips down the floor.
While Simmons’ first three fouls came on the defensive end, he was assertive on offense for the second game in a row. He scored 11 of LSU’s first 21 points, mostly by going to the rim and getting to the free-throw line when he wasn’t finishing.
The second one came on a fast break after Quarterman made a steal and saved the ball from going out of bounds by throwing it blindly over his head toward the center of the court.
Forward Aaron Epps outjumped a South Alabama player for the ball and fed Simmons as he raced up the floor for another slam, which temporarily slowed down the Jaguars.
For the rest of the game, LSU maintained a double-digit lead — even though South Alabama cut the Tigers’ lead to 11 points three times in the final 3½ minutes.
“It was very important to go through that tonight, and we’ll be able to use that down the stretch,” Gray said. “We’ll know what to expect the next time when we’re in a tight game or a bigger game.”
“Those guards were quick,” Blakeney said. “We just have to work on moving our feet, keeping the lane. So far, they were definitely (the quickest team we have played).”