BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU guard Skylar Mays could afford to have a sense of humor after the Tigers nearly blew a 10-point lead in the final 1:11 against Florida, but escaped with yet another narrow victory.
“We’ve got to keep it close,” Mays said with a relieved smile. “It’s worked for us, so why not stick with it.”
Emmitt Williams scored 19 points, Mays capped an 18-point performance with two crucial free throws in the final 10 seconds, and LSU remained unbeaten in SEC play with an 84-82 victory over the Gators on Tuesday night.
Keyontae Johnson had 16 points for Florida and briefly believed he’d forced overtime with a layup on a backdoor cut as time expired. But officials determined on video review that the half-second on the clock when the ball was put in play ran out before the ball left Johnson’s hand.
“I’ve seen crazier things happen in my time here, but that was just a great game,” Mays continued, applauding the Gators’ effort. “Credit to them. They’re a quality team. They’re resilient, just like us. Luckily we were able to pull this one out.”
Javonte Smart scored 13 points and freshman Trendon Watford punctuated his 14-point night with a two-handed dunk on a baseline cut to give LSU (14-4, 6-0) a 79-69 lead with 1:20 to go. Marlon Taylor had 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Tigers, who’ve won five straight by four or fewer points.
Noah Locke scored 16 points for Florida (12-6, 4-2), which created a tense finish by scoring 13 points in the final 1:11 on Andrew Nembhard’s layup, Locke’s 3, two more 3s by Johnson and a layup by Kerry Blackshear.
“We probably shot the ball more confidently late, more than the first 35 minutes, unfortunately,” Florida coach Michael White said. “We could have just packed it in out there, but our guys fought to the bitter end.”
Nembhard and Balckshear each finished with 15 points.
LSU led for the final 14:08 and appeared primed to pull away when Mays hit a 3 with 4:02 remaining. He followed that with a steal from Nembhard and Days pushed the Tigers’ lead to 73-62 when snagged the long rebound from his missed 3 and drove past scrambling defenders for a layup.
LSU coach Will Wade responded by calling a 30-second timeout to rest his defense and stomped onto the court triumphantly, pumping both fists and hollering approvingly at his players.
Little could Wade know how close the Gators would make it after that.
“We’ve been really good coming from behind in these situations. Now we’ve got to be a little better — make some better decisions — playing from ahead,” Wade said. “That was my fault.”
Florida briefly led by as many as eight points in the first half when Scottie Lewis’ transition 3 capped a 12-6 surge and made it 25-17.
LSU responded by pressing defensively and scored nine straight, highlighted by sequence in which Taylor followed his 3 with a steal and fast-break dunk to put the Tigers in front 26-25.
The game remained tight for the remainder of the half, with Florida taking a 36-34 lead into the break on Lewis’ jumper with 2 seconds on the clock.
Florida’s size and talent intermittently gave LSU fits. The Gators shot 50% and hit 11 3s. But untimely turnovers — 12 in all — and defensive breakdowns did them in. Florida allowed LSU to grab 15 offensive rebounds, leading to 11 second-chance points.
LSU made just two of 14 3-point shots, but dominated the paint, outrebounding Florida 38-28 and outscoring the Gators 24-9 at the foul line.
Wade and White could be seen giving each other long looks during just the latest of several close and intense games their teams have played in recent seasons. White said he grew up with LSU assistant Greg Heiar and noted that he coached with LSU assistant Bill Armstrong when both were on Mississippi’s staff.
“It may just be the familiarity with each other,” White said. “Maybe the coaching staffs just want to beat each other’s brains in. Who knows?”
Added Wade, “They do a tremendous, tremendous, job. I think my staff does as good a job as anybody in the league. So, strength-on-strength. … The talent level’s close. The staffs are close. Everything’s close, so they’re all close games.”
Florida hosts No. 1 Baylor on Saturday night in the Big12/SEC Challenge.
LSU visits Texas on Saturday.
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