It didn’t take long for the largest crowd to attend an LSU basketball season opener in more than two decades to get what it came to see Friday night.
Well, maybe it took a little longer than expected for the 11,967 fans who streamed into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center to see the Tigers’ heralded recruiting class led by 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward Ben Simmons.
But they’ll tell you it was worth the wait.
Less than three minutes into the game with McNeese State, Simmons broke into the frontcourt on a 2-on-1 break and delivered a pinpoint behind-the-back pass to guard Tim Quarterman for a layup that helped LSU overcome a bit of a slow start.
Less than two minutes later, Simmons fed fellow freshman Brandon Sampson for another layup that gave LSU the lead for good and the Tigers went on to cruise to an 81-70 win over the Cowboys in a game that wasn’t that close.
A little later, Simmons somehow corralled an alley-oop pass from Quarterman that skipped off the rim and went straight up for a left-handed dunk — his third highlight-reel play of the first seven minutes.
“There were fans out there,” Simmons said, “and they were ready to see a good show.”
But Simmons, who finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots, wasn’t the only freshman who made a big impression.
Fellow McDonald’s All-American Antonio Blakeney had 22 points and Sampson added 18 as they combined to shoot 13 of 28 to delight the biggest season-opening crowd since LSU faced UL-Monroe in November 1991 — beginning Shaquille O’Neal’s final collegiate season.
“You know your coaches believe in you even if you play badly for a bit,” Blakeney, who also had 10 rebounds, said of the slow start. “You may start off shooting badly, but (coach Johnny Jones) believes you can make those shots and lets you keep shooting.”
The three talented freshmen also played a big role in helping the Tigers finish with a decisive flourish at the end of the first half.
With McNeese trying to hang around after trailing just 24-19 at the 7:10 mark, Blakeney, Sampson and Simmons combined to score the final 12 points of the half to extend the lead to 41-27 at halftime.
Sampson made one of his four 3-point baskets in that stretch, and he and Blakeney scored five points each before Simmons capped the run with an emphatic dunk on an alley-oop from Blakeney with 6 seconds remaining.
They — along with Quarterman, a junior, and sophomore guard Jalyn Patterson — provided the energy a sluggish LSU team needed in the first half.
“I don’t think it was a nervous thing,” Sampson said. “We just had to get through the game a couple of times. The shots weren’t falling the first couple of minutes, so we had to go through the motions. But we wound up getting it in the post and kicking it out to get some shots.”
After missing some 3s early, Quarterman went on to score eight of his 11 points in the opening period and Patterson, who was expected to start with Keith Hornsby out after having surgery Nov. 3, scored five of his nine points with a big 3-pointer.
Jones decided to start Sampson in place of Patterson and have all three of his talented freshmen on the floor at the same time — which only heightened the excitement for the crowd.
Sampson, a former Madison Prep star who was Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball last season, was 6-of-12 from the field — including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc — while Patterson helped pick things up later in the first half as well.
After that outburst at the end of the half, LSU started the second half with 20 points in a row that kept the Tigers comfortably in front until McNeese State, which got 18 points from Jamaya Burr and 12 from Craig McFerrin, started closing the gap once the game was well in hand.
“The run (in the second half) was great,” said Simmons, who battled leg cramps in the second half and took just seven shots with four makes. “We played well and rebounded well. We relaxed at the start of the second half last week (in an exhibition win over Southwest Baptist), but we started better in the second half tonight.”
LSU, which led by as many as 34 points at 61-27 with 13:51 to play, had a 70-38 lead when Blakeney scored on a layup with just under 10 minutes left before McNeese finished with a 32-11 run.
“We did what we needed to do to get the gap that we did,” Jones said. “After we got a substantial lead, we weren’t as focused and lot a bit of our way when I took some guys out and we went to the bench. But all in all, I’m excited about the win.”