In two games against Alabama a year ago, LSU basketball coach Will Wade may have felt like he was playing with one hand tied behind his back.
Wade’s team simply couldn’t match up with a Crimson Tide team that's exceptionally long at all five positions on the floor.
But Wade had the perfect antidote in LSU’s Southeastern Conference opener with Alabama on Tuesday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center: some length and athleticism of his own.
LSU looked and played much bigger than it did in losing two games by a total of 23 points to Alabama last season and pulled off an 88-79 victory before 9,718 appreciative fans.
LSU (11-3, 1-0 SEC) got 42 points and 19 rebounds from its four forwards, and the Tigers' four guards did their part with 46 points and 14 assists to put away Alabama (10-4, 1-1) and snap a five-game losing streak against the Crimson Tide.
It almost didn’t happen.
Alabama, which trailed 43-28 at halftime, fell behind by 19 just one minute into the second half and fought back and cut the huge, double-digit deficit to just four with 1:46 to play on two free throws by Riley Norris.
But the Tigers’ big men did a lot of damage throughout the evening — and were especially important late in the game when they were needed most.
Forward Darius Days had a dunk with 2:41 left to push the lead to eight points at 79-71, with the key basket came on a pass from point guard Tremont Waters.
Waters drew a huge roar from the crowd when, seated on the floor about 30 feet from the basket after losing his balance when two Alabama players trapped him, fired a perfect pass to Days under the goal for the dunk.
“Waters threw a baseball pass … he should be on the baseball team at LSU,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “He threw a left-handed curveball that split the trap and the catcher caught it. It was a strike.”
Then, after Alabama pulled to within four points on Norris’ free throws, forward Kavell Bigby-Williams came to the rescue.
Bigby-Williams pulled down an offensive rebound after Ja’vonte Smart’s layup came off the rim and slammed the ball home with authority to give LSU an 81-75 advantage with 1:19 remaining in the game.
The Tigers’ extra length paid off against the Crimson Tide this time as the 6-foot-11 Bigby-Williams scored 14 points, pulled in a game-high 13 rebounds and had five blocked shots, while Days produced a career-high 14 points to go with three rebounds.
“I just played hard,” said Bigby-Williams, who didn’t score and had only one rebound in seven minutes in the Tigers’ most recent game on Dec. 28. “Coach Wade wants us to play hard out there and give it your all, so I just tried to help the team as best I could.”
Naz Reid, a 6-10 forward who fouled out with 4:20 left in the game after battling foul trouble for much of the second half, and Emmitt Williams scored seven points each for the Tigers.
The backcourt did its job, as well.
Waters had 19 points and handed out seven assists, while Smart scored 15 points — with 11 of them coming in the first half — and had five assists. Skylar Mays chipped in with eight points and two assists.
On the defensive end of the floor, LSU did a solid job against Alabama’s 6-9 forward Donta Hall, who dominated the Tigers with 20 points and eight rebounds in the Tide’s 15-point win in Tuscaloosa last season.
Hall, along with guards Dazon Ingram and John Petty, failed to score in the first half when LSU set the tone for the game.
“I thought our defense in the first half was as good as it has been against a high-level opponent,” Wade said. “We guarded them well and I thought that led to some offense.”
Hall, who buried 24 of 30 field-goal attempts and averaged 15.3 points in the previous four games, eventually was held to seven points and six rebounds while being hounded much of the evening by Bigby-Williams.
Reid and Williams also took their turn guarding Alabama’s best player when Bigby-Williams needed a breather.
“Kavell was the difference in the game,” Wade said. “I thought him having a better game than Donta Hall … he was our big problem last year and Kavell really neutralized him.
“Kavell did a lot of things that Hall usually does: block a bunch of shots, dunk a lot of balls and get a bunch of rebounds,” he added. “So Kavell winning that matchup was just critical for us and really was the difference in the game.”
Point guard Kira Lewis led Alabama with 15 points, while forward Alex Reese came off the bench for 12. Guard Herbert Jones had 10 points and five assists.
In the end, LSU was outrebounded by just one at 36-35 after Alabama had a 40-24 edge on the backboards on the Tigers’ home floor last season.
“It wasn’t great, we got outrebounded by one, but last year they got us by 16 at home,” Wade said. “They annihilated us over there, so just being able to hold our own and not be just terrible allowed us to hang in there and get the win.”