As the final minutes ticked off Wednesday night in a game that had 14 lead changes in which every hustle-filled possession was chock-full of flying, board-battling bodies, Will Wade sounded more like a boxing trainer than LSU’s first-year head basketball coach.
“One more round,” the always-animated Wade screamed to his players as they tried to hang on for a win over once-beaten Houston.
Translation: Keep throwing punches until the final buzzer and let’s see who’s standing.
Which is what the Tigers did. Some jabs landed. Some uppercuts didn’t.
But the blows never stopped until the smallest player in the Maravich Assembly Center landed the knockout. That’s when LSU true freshman guard Tremont Waters blocked a potential game-tying three-pointer with 6.5 seconds left to preserve an 80-77 upset.
“We told our guys it was going to be a 10-round fight and we’re not going to get knocked out,” Wade said. “We’re going to stand in the middle of the ring and deliver our punch.”
The last minute of a battle that played out as 40 minutes of attacking the basket, whether for drives or dumping passes to open outside shooters, painted the appropriate ending of grit shown by the 6-2 Tigers.
Here’s how it went down:
0:56 remaining: LSU senior forward Aaron Epps capped the best night of his career, 26 points and 16 rebounds, by scoring an old-fashioned three-point play with a layup and free throw for an 80-74 lead. His clutch moment started when he picked up a loose ball after Houston’s Devin Davis collected a missed reverse layup by the Tigers’ Skylar Mays. Davis tried to save it falling out-of-bounds underneath the basket to Cougars’ teammate Chris Harris. Harris fumbled the ball out of hands and down between his legs right into Epps’ grateful mitts.
“Either team could win that game,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team got outrebounded (38-33) for the first time this season. “If we get that (loose) ball, we probably have a chance to tie it up or take the lead with under a minute to go.”
It wasn’t an accident that Epps was in the right place at the perfect time. That was his mode of operation from the opening tip to the closing horn.
“Epps has always been an animal on the glass, it was his night,” said Mays, who also had an admirable evening with 18 points and 9 rebounds.
0:49: Houston senior guard Rob Gray, the American Athletic Conference’s leading scorer, hit an all-by-his-lonesome three-pointer to slice the Tigers’ margin to a single possession. He ducked behind a screen, and LSU defenders Daryl Edwards and Brandon Rachal failed to communicate on the switch.
It was one of the few mistakes Edwards made guarding Gray, who finished with 20 points but made just that one three-pointer in six attempts. Houston made 11-of-29 threes, but just 3-of-11 in the second half.
0:24: Waters botched a pick-and-roll and his pass was scooped by Houston’s Devin Davis. Cougars’ coach Sampson didn’t feel he needed a timeout with his veteran lineup. Instead, it…