NEW YORK — Two of the nation’s top five recruits from the Class of 2015 met up on the basketball court Monday night in the semifinals of the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center.
LSU forward Ben Simmons, the No. 1 player in the land last winter, and Marquette forward Henry Ellenson, who was ranked fifth overall and was the No. 2 power forward behind Simmons, went at it all night on both ends of the floor.
In the home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, neither big man disappointed in putting on a spectacular show in Marquette’s down-to-the-wire 81-80 win.
Simmons poured in 21 points and had 20 rebounds and seven assists, while Ellenson racked up 16 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out with 1:56 remaining when he charged into Simmons.
While Simmons won the battle of elite five-star recruits, Ellenson and Marquette won a thriller to advance to the championship game Tuesday night.
Marquette (2-2) will meet Arizona State, a 79-76 winner over North Carolina State, for the title, while LSU (3-1) will play the North Carolina State at 4:30 p.m. in the consolation contest on ESPNU.
LSU took its only lead of the game with 21.5 seconds left when Simmons, who was being hit in the face on a drive to the basket, threw the ball up blindly over his shoulder and banked it off the glass for an 80-79 edge.
On the ensuing possession, guard Josh Gray, who was instrumental in helping LSU come all the way back from a nine-point deficit with 4:43 left, picked up his fifth foul with 10.8 seconds to play.
Marquette’s Jajuan Johnson drained both free throws for a one-point advantage before LSU’s Jalyn Patterson missed a potential game-winning 3-point shot at the buzzer when the ball kicked off the back iron.
Simmons passed up the final shot twice, first going to Brandon Sampson, and, after it was kicked back out to him, to Patterson — LSU’s second-best 3-point shooter a year ago.
Even though Simmons had almost half of LSU’s 15 assists, some may have been surprised that he opted to get the ball to his guards instead of penetrating the lane and taking the shot himself.
“We always want him to make the right decision,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We have some great shooters, and Ben shows great trust in them. He’s not going to force (shots).”
The problem was the Tigers were in the midst of their worst shooting night of the season.
While Simmons was 6-of-14, LSU’s five guards — Tim Quarterman, Antonio Blakeney, Sampson, Patterson and Gray — were a combined 19-of-50. As a team, the Tigers were 27-of-73 for 37.0 percent.
“He made the right decision going to Jalyn,” Jones said. “Jalyn had a good look, and Brandon had a good look on the initial pass. We shot 37 percent from the field, and when we’re making shots, we’re a much better team.”
Simmons said he went to Sampson and Patterson because Marquette was making sure he couldn’t get to the basket.
“I saw Brandon open, threw to him. I thought he was going take the shot and he didn’t,” Simmons said. “I threw it to Jalyn. I trust him a lot; he hit the game-winning shot for a national championship when we were at Montverde (in high school).
“We have players who can step up and hit shots. It just didn’t fall for us.”
The Tigers were fortunate the game came down to one final shot after they trailed by 10 points twice — first when the Golden Eagles scored the first 10 points of the game — and when they led 65-55 at the 10:49 mark.
Defensive lapses were a big problem for LSU with Marquette making 30 of 57 shots for 52.6 percent. Center Luke Fischer led the way with 19 points, while Ellenson, Duane Wilson and Johnson each had 16.
In addition to Simmons’ 21 points, Quarterman had 20 points for LSU, while Blakeney and Sampson added 14 and 10, respectively.
Simmons said he could have done better defending the Golden Eagles two 6-11 players, Fischer and Ellenson, inside.
“Defense,” Simmons said of what he could have done. “I let (Fischer and Ellenson) score too much. It was easy for them in the post. That was the main thing for me.”
Also, LSU’s woes on the backboards continued when Marquette had 46 rebounds to 40 for the Tigers, who were outrebounded for the third time in four games despite Simmons’s career-high 20.
“We know the potential,” Jones said of his star freshman. “We know how good Ben is and what he’s capable of providing for this team.
“We cannot ask him to put up these kinds of numbers night in and night out. ... We need to carry the weight across the board.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.