The LSU men’s basketball team (19-10, 11-6 Southeastern Conference) faced No. 1 seed Michigan in the NCAA East Regional second round on Monday night. The eighth-seeded Tigers defeated No. 9 St. Bonaventure 76-61 on Saturday to advance to the Round of 32.
The Wolverines advanced after taking down Texas Southern 82-66. Michigan led the Big Ten Conference in three-point shooting and ranked 53rd in the nation in opponent points per game (65.4) and 13th in opponent field goal percentage (39.3%).
Contrary to his game against St. Bonaventure, freshman guard Cam Thomas exploded in the first half with 12 of LSU’s first 17 points, making five of his first six shot attempts. He scored as many as the Wolverines’ entire team early in the game as both had 12 points with 12 minutes to go in the half.
A three-point play from junior forward Darius Days put the Tigers up nine before the Wolverines clawed back to take a 43-42 lead at the break. Thomas had 19 points, one rebound and a block in the first half. Junior guard Javonte Smart filled the stat sheet with nine points, four rebounds, five assists and one steal.
The second half was a game of runs. LSU did not commit its first turnover until 15 minutes and 42 seconds left in the second half. The Tigers held onto a six-point lead before a 10-0 Michigan run gave the Wolverines a 55-51 lead.
LSU responded with a 12-3 run of its own to go back up by five, but Michigan’s huge 22-7 run to take an 80-70 lead with 3 minutes and 27 seconds left to play spelled the end for the Tigers. The Wolverines closed things out 86-78 to advance to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
“I thought it was a great game,” Head Coach Will Wade said. “The game got away from us at the end of the first half. We had a pretty good working margin, got off to a great start. We got the lead in the second half by six. They made some huge threes. We just had some poor closeouts, some poor switches below the ball and weren’t able to overcome them.”
LSU committed just three turnovers in the game, but Michigan got a big boost of 26 bench points compared to the Tigers’ two. The Wolverines’ stout defense kept them in the game as LSU shot just 39.1% from the field and 28.6% from deep.
“We could just never string together enough stops to make a run and expand our lead,” Wade said. “We could never get the lead above 10 in the first half. Second half, after we got the six-point lead, we gave up a couple threes and missed a floater in the lane. We could never sustain what we were doing.”
Thomas and Smart each played all 40 minutes. Thomas once again led all scorers with 30 points and added three rebounds, a block and a steal.
“Their run coincided with us having those guys out there a long time at the end of the first half,” Wade said. “In the second half, we ran out of gas in the last ten minutes. So I do think that probably had something to do with it.”
Smart scored 27 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished five assists and came up with one steal in what was likely his final game with the Tigers. He declared for the NBA Draft in April but ultimately decided to return to LSU for his junior season.
“Talking to my mom and coaches, I felt like coming back would be the best thing for me,” Smart said. “I feel like this year helped me learn a lot more about myself and about growing up as a man. This year was one of the biggest years you could ask for. Pandemic, COVID — it was hard. I want to give it all to the NCAA for being able to have this.”
Sophomore forward Trendon Watford had 11 points, four rebounds and three blocks.
“I’m proud of our guys, our younger guys, and even Trendon and Days,” Smart said. “Me and Days came in together and me and Trendon are always together. That’s my guy. We’re roommates, and we were always working out together.”
Michigan now leads the head-to-head series 3-1. Wade said the Tigers will look ahead to next season in hopes of retaining some key players.
“We’re certainly going to lose some very, very good players,” Wade said. “We’ve got some talented young kids in the program that we feel really good about. We’re going to try to mix in some veteran guys here in the spring, have two or three scholarships to mess around with. We’ve got to keep the young core together, get those guys in the gym, get back to work, add a couple veteran pieces and I think we can be right back where we are tonight.”