The LSU and Florida basketball teams cornered the market on close, nail-biting games a year ago when their three contests were decided by a total of nine points — with two of them going to overtime.
When they got together again Tuesday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, they didn’t need overtime to decide it.
Still, it was another extremely close one for most of 39-plus minutes before LSU hung on for an 84-82 victory to remain undefeated in Southeastern Conference play and delight an enthusiastic crowd of 10,479 fans.
Skylar Mays scored 14 points in a decisive second half and Florida natives Emmitt Williams and Darius Days added 13 and eight, respectively, as Will Wade’s team out-scrapped a Florida team that thrashed then-No. 4 Auburn by 22 points on Saturday night.
The win was the 23rd in the past 25 SEC regular-season games dating to last season for LSU (14-4, 6-0 SEC).
With it came a measure of revenge against Florida (12-6, 4-2 SEC), which took two of the three matchups a year ago. The Gators’ second win came in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, eliminating the Tigers after they had claimed the regular-season title.
LSU, which trailed 36-34 at halftime Tuesday night, broke open a tight game to grab a 73-62 lead with 3:25 remaining and the Tigers went on to lead by 10 points on three occasions — the final time at the 1:20 mark on a Trendon Watford dunk — before a furious Florida rally came up just short.
“It seems like that every time we play Florida,” a relieved Wade said. “I was kind of expecting a little bit different when we had an 11-point lead. But like I told the team, we’ve been coming from behind; now we need to find a way to play better when we’re ahead.”
“Who knows?” Florida coach Mike White said when asked what it is about these teams. “That’s four in a row, high-level basketball games … just good games.
“I don’t know what it is, other than it’s two competitive teams,” he said. “They’ve all had interesting endings.”
LSU finished with six players in double figures against a Florida defense that was giving up just 65.3 points a game going into the contest.
Williams led the way with 19 points, while Mays had 18. Watford had 14 and Javonte Smart 13, while Days and Marlon Taylor finished with 10 each.
Taylor produced his first double-double of the season with a game-high 11 rebounds, Days had eight and Watford six as LSU crushed Florida 38-28 on the glass. The Gators were second in SEC games only in rebounding margin at plus-8.4 per game.
Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson scored 16 points each to lead Florida, while SEC preseason player of the year Kerry Blackshear and Andrew Nembhard had 15 apiece.
LSU seemingly took control after Blackshear hit two free throws with 7:01 to play to pull his team to within four points before a 10-3 run for the Tigers gave them the separation they were looking for all evening.
Taylor was hacked by Nembhard on a 3-point attempt and made all three free throws, Mays worked his way in for a layup and then had a long 3-pointer go down as the buzzer on the shot clock went off to more than offset a 3-pointer by Johnson.
Days followed his own 3-point miss with a shot off the glass to cap the run for LSU’s largest lead of the night at 73-62 with 3:25 to go.
But that only seemed to motivate Florida, which refused to go away — mainly on the determined play of Nembhard, whose 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds to play sank LSU in the SEC tournament last March, and Johnson.
Johnson had a pair of 3-pointers in the final 36 seconds, with his second pulling his team to within one at 81-80 with 31 seconds left.
“In LSU’s defense, we were playing with nothing to lose out of desperation,” White said. “I’m really proud of the effort down the stretch just to have a chance.”
With LSU’s lead at two with 0.5 seconds left, Florida had one last chance to tie. But Johnson’s short bank shot was waved off after replays showed the ball still on his right fingertips at the final horn.
“We have to keep it close, that’s how things work out,” Mays, who had seven assists along with Smart, said of the close encounters with Florida. “That was a great game, credit to (Florida).
“They’re resilient just like us. Luckily, we were able to pull this one out.”
The Tigers also had a huge 50-32 edge in the paint area against the much-taller Gators, another key number that figured into the outcome.
“At the end of the day, we played well,” Wade said. “We pounded the paint and took only only 14 3s. We did what we needed to do to win and we found a way.
“It wasn’t pretty and not the way we wanted it to end. Like I told our guys, ‘It’s a win, let’s enjoy it; we’re 6-0 in the league.' We can get to correcting things Wednesday and Thursday.”