BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The ball nearly got away from LSU’s Tremont Waters during one of the 5-foot-11 point guard’s brazen, penetrating dribbles into a crowd of towering defenders.
Waters saved his dribble by darting along the baseline toward an empty corner, where he turned, saw no one had followed him, and buried a 3-pointer.
“That’s good coaching,” LSU coach Will Wade deadpanned. “He’s just a very instinctive player and a very, very good player. You can’t teach that.”
Mississippi State, meanwhile, couldn’t figure out how to neutralize Waters, whose 14 points and 10 assists helped LSU close out its regular season with a 78-57 victory over the Bulldogs on Saturday.
“Tremont did a good job controlling the game,” Wade said.
Aaron Epps highlighted his 16-point performance with a back-breaking 3 with 2:19 to go, and Brandon Sampson had his best game in a month with 16 points and three steals for LSU (17-13, 8-10 Southeastern Conference).
New Orleans native Lamar Peters scored 15 points and Quinndary Weatherspoon added 12 points for the Bulldogs (21-10, 9-9), who could have used a road victory in the league to solidify their credentials for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Instead, LSU won its sixth straight home game to take some momentum into next week’s SEC Tournament in St. Louis, where the Tigers likely have to win out to get an NCAA berth.
“We struggled to defend them all day,” lamented Bulldogs coach Ben Howland, adding that LSU “is a team that can make some noise in the SEC Tournament. Their guard play is very good.”
LSU capitalized on open perimeter shots Waters helped create, hitting 11 of 23 from 3-point range. Waters went 3-for-4 from deep and Epps 4-for-8.
MSU went just 6-for-23 from 3-point range, which Howland emphasized was “not good enough.”
“We had to get it inside more and attack the rim,” Howland said, adding that a number of the Bulldogs’ missed 3s “were decent looks that we just didn’t knock down.
“I’m hoping that the rest we’re going to get the next few days will help us get our legs back,” he said.
The game closed out a brilliant regular season for Waters, the first SEC freshman since Kentucky’s John Wall in 2010 to average 15 points and five assists in a season. He had already broken Ben Simmons’s single-season assists record at LSU. His fourth 10-assist game gives him 177 this season.
Yet Waters declined to discuss what his success so far could mean for LSU going forward.
“I just want to live in the moment. I don’t want to speak too much about the future,” Waters said. “Tomorrow ain’t promised and I’m going to just say that I hope great things happen.”
Sampson hadn’t scored more than seven in a game since his 17 points in a loss at Florida on Feb. 7. The 6-5 junior not only had one of his more productive outings, but converted timely plays. His offensive rebound and put-back while being fouled gave LSU a 55-47 lead with 10:01 left.
“That’s how we need him to play, expect him to play,” Wade said.
In the first half, Sampson’s 3 ignited a 12-0 run that put the Tigers ahead for good. Freshman Brandon Rachal added a dunk and Waters delighted the crowd with a driving scoop in the lane to finish off a give-and-go he initiated with a no-look, between-the-legs bounce pass to Duop Reath, who then floated the ball back to LSU’s imaginative floor general.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs looked like a good NCAA Tournament candidate with three straight late-season victories over Mississippi, Texas A&M and South Carolina - but closed out the regular season with a disastrous final two games, starting with Tuesday’s 21-point loss at home to Tennessee. “Sometimes, you find yourself getting comfortable when you’re winning and you’re not preparing the same way, not working, and not having the same amount of focus,” Peters said. “So we are just going to keep working and keep grinding out, because I think we have a special team.”
LSU: While the Tigers have been inconsistent, particularly on the road, they’ve strung together a number of confidence-building performances at home and will hope to channel some of that quality in their upcoming neutral-site games. The Tigers also saw evidence of Rachal’s potential to contribute. He had six points and five rebounds.
Reath, a senior, scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in his last game in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where the crowd went crazy in the final minute for fellow senior Reed Vial after the 6-foot-3 walk-on hit a 3. Even LSU players wildly celebrated Vial’s shot.
“It went about as well as it could go on Senior Day, obviously being able to play Reed at the end,” Wade said. “It shows how close our guys are. They wanted to make sure he got a look.”
Mississippi State: Opens SEC Tournament play on Thursday.
LSU: Plays its SEC Tournament opener next week.
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