NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In an effort to keep its slim NCAA tournament hopes alive, the LSU men’s basketball team came to the Southeastern Conference tournament to play three games in three days.
But the Tigers knew that playing three games might not be enough.
“In our minds, we have to win all three,” LSU sophomore forward Craig Victor said Friday. “Our mission is to play three games. But we don’t want to just play them. ... We want to win them.”
It’s one down and two to go after fourth-seeded LSU outplayed No. 12 seed Tennessee down the stretch and posted an 84-75 victory that sent the Tigers into a matchup with No. 1 seed (and 17th-ranked) Texas A&M in the semifinals at noon Saturday.
Texas A&M, which shared the SEC’s regular-season title with Kentucky, advanced with a 72-66 victory over Florida just before LSU took the court for what basically was a do-or-die game as far as its NCAA tournament hopes are concerned.
LSU (19-13, 12-7) trailed 33-32 at halftime and was locked in a 59-59 tie with upstart Tennessee with 5 minutes, 50 seconds left before finishing strong with a 25-16 run.
The win served a dual purpose for LSU: It avenged an 81-65 loss to Tennessee on Feb. 20 in Knoxville and, more importantly, it helped the Tigers live to see another day after being bounced out in the quarterfinals a year ago.
LSU split its two meetings with Texas A&M this season. The Aggies won 71-57 on Jan. 19 in College Station, while the Tigers prevailed 76-71 in the Feb. 13 rematch in Baton Rouge.
“We’re very familiar with each other,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We’re going to have to execute at a high level, (on) both ends of the floor. We’re hopeful we’re the team that has the least amount of mistakes and plays closer to flawless.”
LSU didn’t play flawless Friday, but it did manage to stick around.
When forwards Ben Simmons and Craig Victor were saddled with two fouls each, with Simmons’ second coming less than five minutes into the game, guards Antonio Blakeney and Tim Quarterman were among the players stepping up.
Blakeney scored 16 points in the decisive second half and Quarterman had 14, while Simmons chipped in 11 as that trio accounted for 41 of the Tigers’ 52 points.
Blakeney was 4-of-7 from the field and made all seven of his free-throw attempts, while Quarterman was 4-of-6 on field-goal attempts in the second half as LSU shot 57.1 percent after hitting just 35.3 percent in the opening 20 minutes.
For the game, Blakeney was 6-of-12 from the floor and 9-of-9 from the free-throw line. He has made 28 consecutive free throws dating to the Florida game Feb. 27.
“It’s big when Antonio comes in and just makes shots,” Quarterman said. “He’s consistent throughout the game. He’s been having some big games, so it’s big for our team when he hits shots.”
“Antonio’s been playing real well the past few games,” Simmons said. “He’s been one of our main players. He’s another threat, so it’s not only me and Craig and Tim you have to worry about.”
Blakeney finished with a game-high 22 points to lead five LSU players in double figures.
Quarterman had 18 and Simmons had 15, while Josh Gray got a start in place of Jalyn Patterson and finished with 11. Victor had 10 points to go with a team-high nine rebounds.
But Blakeney was more proud of the Tigers defense, which had given up 50 points or more in the second half of its previous five games.
“I think that how hard we played defensively was the difference in the game,” he said. “Josh came in, he started the game, and he really got it going defensively for us.”
LSU was crushed by Tennessee just 20 days earlier when the Vols shot 64.5 percent. Even though they were outrebounded 42-35 that day by a smaller team, LSU had a slight 38-35 edge on the glass Friday.
“We knew they would come in and crash the boards, so we made a strong emphasis on rebounding and playing defense,” Victor said. “They were the more physical team and outrebounded us, so this game we just tried to be tough on the boards and lock in on defense.”