After a disappointing loss at Houston on Wednesday night, Will Wade sensed his LSU basketball team needed a jolt.
So he gave it to the Tigers before Saturday night’s matchup with Saint Mary’s in the nightcap of the Neon Hoops Showcase in Las Vegas.
Wade sat starting point guard Tremont Waters for the first time this season and inserted Marlon Taylor at the three-guard spot, a pair of moves that paid off handsomely in LSU’s 78-74 victory over Saint Mary’s.
LSU (8-3) responded to the changes in a big way and led by eight points in the first half and by 15 on three occasions in the second half, then held on for the win after Saint Mary’s (7-5) made several runs over the final nine minutes.
“I was proud of our guys,” Wade said in his postgame radio interview. “It certainly wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, or any means. But I thought our guys had a good spirit to them.”
His team produced one of its better efforts of the season on the defensive end, holding Saint Mary’s to 74 points after the Gaels averaged 85.8 points in their four-game winning streak — prevailing by 21.3 points a game.
LSU forced 19 turnovers — 14 in the first half — against a Saint Mary’s team that was giving the ball up just 9.4 times a game for the season. The Tigers turned those miscues into 20 points on the other end.
“I thought our defense was really, really good,” Wade said.
Waters came off the bench for only the second time in his two-year career to score 18 points — with 13 coming in the decisive second half after LSU held a slim 29-28 halftime lead.
LSU basketball coach Will Wade made a major change to his lineup for Saturday night's game with Saint Mary's in the Neon Hoops Showcase in Las Vegas.
Emmitt Williams also came off the bench to score a career-high 15 points and grab a team-high six rebounds, while Skylar Mays and Naz Reid finished with 14 points each. Reid also had five rebounds.
After making just 3 of 13 shots from the floor in the loss at Houston, Waters was 7-of-12 against Saint Mary’s.
He made his first two shots when he checked into the game at the 15:30 mark of the first half and closed the contest by hitting five of his final six attempts.
Waters had three assists and two steals, the last coming when he stepped in front of a Tommy Kuhse pass which he turned into a layup for a 74-66 lead with 43 seconds left.
Waters committed just two turnovers in 30 minutes of playing time after giving the ball away 27 times in the previous five games.
“Certainly, Tremont played his best game he’s played for us in probably a month,” Wade said. “It wasn’t just the scoring. He distributed the ball well and he attacked off those ball screens.”
Waters was 3 of 5 from 3-point range to lead the Tigers, who shot 33.3 percent in the first half and 55.2 percent in the second half after making their first seven shots coming out of the locker room.
“Our offense was good for most of the game, we just had some stretches where we reverted back to some things,” Wade said. “We took some quick 3s. But we played inside-out and we were able to get the ball in the paint.”
Taylor scored just seven points, but he made a 3-pointer and had two thunderous dunks to help spark a huge 16-2 run to start the second half.
That momentum-building run gave LSU its first 15-point advantage at 47-32 with 14:41 remaining.
After falling to No. 24 Houston in its most recent outing, the LSU basketball team will face a different kind of challenge Saturday night.
After Reid scored the Tigers’ first basket 16 seconds into the second half, Saint Mary’s pulled to within a point again at 31-30 on a basket by Elijah Thomas.
But Taylor knocked down a 3-pointer from the left corner and Mays nailed another one from the opposite corner on the next possession.
A little more than a minute later, after a pair of free throws by Reid, Taylor, working the baseline, took a pass from Ja’vonte Smart and threw down a dunk.
Mays and Williams sandwiched field goals around another high-flying dunk by Taylor — this one on a pretty feed from Waters cutting across the lane — before a basket by Williams capped the 16-2 run.
LSU last held a 15-point lead at the 9:54 mark on a Waters field goal, but the Tigers, who were up by 15 in the second half at Houston before falling by six points. weren’t going to let it happen again.
Saint Mary’s trimmed the deficit to single digits four times after that, cutting it to four points at the 1:42 mark and just two twice in the final 19 seconds.
But LSU, which was 22 of 25 on free throw in the game, made 4 of 6 from the line in the waning moments to secure the victory.
Saint Mary’s guard Jordan Ford, the West Coast Conference’s second-leading scorer with 22.5 points per game, was held to two points in the first half. But he exploded for 19 second-half points, including 15 in the final 12½ minutes, for a game-high 21.
The only other double-figure scorer for Saint Mary’s was center Jordan Hunter, who scored the first eight points of the game for the Gaels and finished with 15.
“I was proud of our guys,” Wade said. “We picked ourselves up off the mat after a really, really tough game on Wednesday night.”