Like so many things that come under Will Wade’s meticulous planning, senior day went about as well as he could have expected Saturday afternoon for his LSU basketball team, which hammered Mississippi State 78-57 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Wade did have some doubt Friday night going into what he said can be an emotional evening prior to his seniors’ final regular-season home game.
“I’ve always done something the night before the seniors’ final home game where we do some stuff that’s pretty emotional,” Wade said. “I told my (director of basketball operations Nelson Hernandez), ‘God, I don’t know how this is going to go tonight,’ when we were walking in the hotel.
“I said, ‘This could be a real dud.’ Usually, it’s a great night … it’s usually emotional, and guys get a lot out of it. I was worried it could be a dud, and it was one of the best ones that we have had.”
It carried over to Saturday’s important matchup with Mississippi State.
Seniors Duop Reath and Aaron Epps combined to score 14 of LSU’s first 16 points and senior walk-on Reed Vial, who made his first career start, got the final five points — including a game-capping 3-pointer — in an LSU rout.
Solid defense fueled two big runs — one in each half — and the Tigers crushed the Bulldogs to end the regular season on an emphatic note.
A sixth home win in a row helped LSU (17-13, 8-10 Southeastern Conference) snap a three-game losing streak against Mississippi State (21-10, 9-9) and gave the Tigers a first-round bye — and a rematch with the Bulldogs — in the SEC tournament that begins Wednesday in St. Louis. LSU will be the No. 10 seed and face No. 7 Mississippi State at 6 p.m. Thursday on SEC Network.
It might have also secured the Tigers a spot in the 32-team NIT field with seven wins against teams in the RPI top 50.
“I think we’re an NIT team, yes,” Wade said. “NIT would be a great step for us if we could get in that tournament, and I think we’d be good enough if we got in there to make a run … and maybe get a chance to go to New York (for the semifinals and final).”
While it was the seniors’ day, freshmen Brandon Rachal and Tremont Waters played key roles; Rachal on defense and Waters on the offensive end.
Wade said Rachal was the linchpin during a 5½-minute stretch when LSU turned a 21-18 deficit into a 30-21 lead.
In that time, Mississippi State, which started 3 of 4 from 3-point range, had 10 empty possessions with nine missed shots and three turnovers (they had two offensive rebounds).
Rachal had two of his game-high four steals in that stretch.
“We played Brandon the last 11 minutes of the first half and they scored 13 points, so I thought he did a really, really good job,” Wade said. “Our guys stuck to the game plan.
“It’s a little risky when we go under ball screens, and they hit three 3s to start the game. Our guys stuck with the game plan, and they regressed and ended up shooting 26 percent. I was happy our guys had the discipline to stick with what we were doing.”
LSU was also doing the job offensively early on.
Reath had three baskets in a row, and Epps added two 3-pointers and worked down low for another basket that kept LSU in it before the defense tightened.
“I thought Duop and Aaron played well,” Wade said. “Duop set the tone early with setting the ball screens and making easy layups. Epps hit the big 3s to help us pull away.”
Epps tied Brandon Sampson for game-high honors with 16 points each, while Reath added 12 points and a game-high eight rebounds.
“I feel like it was our teammates trying to get us going,” Reath said of the hot start. “This is our last home game. Shout out to them for getting us the ball.”
“I felt like people saw all the work that I put in,” Epps said. “I just went out there and showed it. It was definitely fun.”
Waters added 14 points and handed out a game-high 10 assists for his fifth double-double of the season.
Waters got a bigger thrill seeing Vial score a career-high five points in the final 90 seconds of the blowout win.
“Obviously, he didn’t play much all season,” Waters said, “but he does a lot to help the team and the coaching staff. It was just a good feeling for the whole team to get it out to Reed.”
Sampson was active on both ends, going 4 of 7 from the field and hitting all seven of his free throws. He also had three rebounds and three steals.
“He was awesome … this is what we have been trying to do,” Wade said. “He was very, very good today defensively and offensively.”
After leading 21-18 with 10:14 to play in the first half, State scored just 36 points in the game's final 30 minutes.
New Orleans native Lamar Peters led the Bulldogs with 15 points, while Quinndary Weatherspoon and brother Nick had 12 and 11, respectively. But those three guards were a combined 14 of 36 from the field.
Rachal had just six points and five rebounds in 27 minutes, but was a huge factor in keeping State’s dangerous perimeter players in check.
“Brandon was the difference-maker for us defensively,” Wade said.