BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Antonio Blakeney released both hands from the rim, shouted, “Hey!” as he dropped to the court and delivered an intense glare at the nearest Mississippi State player, Malik Newman.
The celebration drew a technical foul, but the LSU freshman insisted afterward that he meant nothing malicious. Rather, Blakeney said, he was simply releasing raw emotion to punctuate the best game of his young career.
“Just the passion for the game - having fun,” he explained with a smile.
Blakeney scored a career-high 31 points, and LSU moved into sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference with an 88-77 victory over struggling Mississippi State on Saturday night.
Blakeney, whose previous single-game high was 22 points, hit 11 of 17 shots, including four 3-pointers. It was easily his best outing against a team from a major conference and exactly what LSU (15-8, 8-2) expected when it recruited last season’s Florida high school player of the year.
Blakeney said he could tell by halftime that he was “in the zone,” adding, “I didn’t know I was going to have 30, but I knew I was going to keep being aggressive.”
Keith Hornsby scored 25 points for LSU, while Ben Simmons added 16 points and nine rebounds and seven assists.
Gavin Ware scored 14 for Mississippi State (9-13, 2-8), which led by as many as 14 points in the first half. But the Bulldogs trailed 43-35 at halftime and struggled to keep pace after that.
LSU led by as many as 20 in the second half when Blakeney’s jumper, which gave him seven points during a 14-3 run, made it 67-47 with 11:28 to go.
MSU never got closer than 11 points after that and lost for the third time in four games.
Quinndary Weatherspoon, Craig Sword and Malik Newman each scored 12 for Mississippi State, while Fred Thomas added 10 points.
But LSU shot 65.5 percent (19 of 29) in the second half, making it exceedingly difficult for the Bulldogs to catch up even as they shot 50 percent (16 of 32) during the final 20 minutes.
Mississippi State also was without junior guard I.J. Ready, who has been dealing with a nagging foot injury.
“That was a tough break,” Bulldogs coach Ben Howland said, noting specifically that Ready’s absence essentially forced him to stick with a zone defense that was ineffective against LSU’s perimeter shooters, rather than switching to man-to-man. “It really hurt us that we were short a guy.”
TRUSTING THE PROCESS
Blakeney didn’t want to over-play the significance of his performance, but didn’t minimize it, either.
“It’s something I need as a scorer,” he said. “I’m a confident guy whether I had that game or not, but it definitely helped.”
Blakeney hasn’t always looked confident while adjusting to major college basketball. He’s scored seven or fewer points in 10 games and averaged 9.5 points entering the contest against the Bulldogs.
“I believe in the process and I know nothing’s easy. You’re going to go through ups and downs in the game of basketball,” Blakeney said. “You’ve got to be able to work through it and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Sword hit two early 3s as MSU opened the game on an 8-0 run. The Bulldogs hit 8 of their first 13 shots while taking their largest lead at 22-8. At that point, LSU had hit only three of its first 11 shots, but began to close the gap when Blakeney made two 3s and Hornsby added another.
“We did get off to a really good start. We just started going away from what we were doing at first,” Ware said. “Everybody started jacking up unnecessary shots and it started with me.”
LSU didn’t take its first lead of the game until Craig Victor’s steal and breakaway layup that put the Tigers up 34-33 with less than four minutes left in the first half. The Tigers wound up outscoring MSU 16-2 during the final 5:33 of the half, highlighted by Hornsby’s transition 3, which was set up by Simmons’ hard, no-look pass.
Mississippi State: Newman, who entered the game with 52 3-pointers this season, missed all four of his attempts from long range against LSU. … Ware’s point total moved him nine points past Eric Dampier as Mississippi State’s 22nd all-time scorer.
LSU: The Tigers have won four straight in the series. … LSU improved to 5-0 at home in SEC games. … Blakeney’s previous single-game scoring high of 22 came twice before against South Alabama and McNeese State in November.
Mississippi State: Hosts Arkansas on Tuesday night.
LSU: Visits South Carolina on Wednesday night.
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