In its past two losses, LSU’s guards didn’t distinguish themselves, managing 36 points at Tennessee and 31 at Arkansas.
On Saturday night, just hours after LSU honored one of the best big men in school history, the Tigers guards had their time in the spotlight.
Led by freshman Antonio Blakeney’s career-high 32 points, LSU’s guards combined for 62 points in a 96-91, must-have, Southeastern Conference win over Florida in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for LSU, which had dropped four of its past five going into the matchup with Florida, just three hours after a statue for two-time LSU All-American Bob Pettit was unveiled.
The win allowed LSU (17-12, 10-6) to climb into a three-way tie for third place in the conference — just a game behind co-leaders Kentucky and Texas A&M — with two regular-season games left.
The Tigers are tied with Vanderbilt, which ripped Kentucky earlier Saturday, and South Carolina, which fell at Mississippi State.
LSU turned what appeared to be a laugher into a nail-biter in the final minutes after leading by a dozen points (79-67) after two Craig Victor free throws with 2:41 left.
Florida (17-12, 8-8) wouldn’t go quietly and kept chipping away at the deficit after LSU’s Ben Simmons, who had 22 points, connected for two free throws to give his team an 83-73 cushion with 1:38 to play.
Florida, which has dropped three consecutive games and four of its past five, slashed LSU’s once-commanding lead to two points three times in the final 43 seconds after the Tigers led by as many as 18 with 13:40 to play.
But Blakeney, who watched LSU miss seven free throws in a 64-second stretch that could have iced the game, calmly made six free throws in the last 18 seconds to finally secure the victory.
“Everybody knew we needed this win,” Simmons said.
LSU finished 30-of-43 at the line (69.8 percent) but was 29-of-52 from the field for 55.8 percent after shooting just 40.3 percent at Tennessee and an icy 35.1 percent at Arkansas.
“Really, it was just my teammates believing in me,” said Blakeney, who added one point to his career high of 31 he had in a win over Mississippi State on Feb. 6. “Ben told me before the game to shoot every time I had a good look.
“Every time I didn’t get a good look, (Florida defenders) were on me,” he added. “So I was just trying to knock the (open) shots down.”
He did, Simmons said.
“(Blakeney) is the best shooter on our team,” he said. “I believe he’s the best shooter in the SEC, so every time he gets an open look I want him to shoot it.”
Blakeney, who wound up hitting 9-of-10 free throws in the final minute and was 10-of-12 for the game, wasn’t the only one to step up in the Tigers backcourt against the Gators.
Tim Quarterman had 15 points and Jalyn Patterson added 11, while Josh Gray came off the bench for four points to complete the scoring for LSU’s guards.
Blakeney was 9-of-13 from the field, while Patterson was 4-of-7 and Quarterman 3-of-5. That trio was 8-of-14 from 3-point range.
“That’s huge having guys like Antonio, Jalyn and Tim step up and hit shots,” Simmons said. “That creates more options for us. Them (hitting shots) opens up more space.”
Simmons took advantage of the chances his teammates gave him.
In addition to his 22 points, he pulled down 11 rebounds and had five assists for his fifth 20-10-5 game of the season. It was also the 20th double-double for Simmons, who leads the SEC in that category.
Florida got a career-high 22 points from John Egbunu, while Kasey Hill had 16 and Devin Robinson 15. Dorian Finney-Smith, the Gators’ leading scorer, had 14 points before fouling out late in the contest.
While it got a little too close for comfort in the end, LSU coach Johnny Jones was relieved to escape with an important win after dropping a 68-62 decision to Florida in Gainesville early in SEC play.
“Our guys did a great job, even there in the end, staying poised under pressure when (Florida) was making plays and getting back into the game,” he said. “At the end of the day, we had a big-time win here at home to put us in position to end this conference season strong.”