By Ron Higgins
Special to The Tuscaloosa News
BATON ROUGE La. – Alabama fourth-year coach Avery Johnson has had some enjoyable return visits to his home state, especially to the city where starred for Southern University.
Johnson had never lost in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center until Tuesday night when LSU grabbed firm control late in the first half and held on for an 88-79 victory in the Tigers’ SEC opener.
The Crimson Tide’s extremely uneven performance – they trailed by 15 at halftime and by 19 early in the second half – was a stark contrast to their 77-75 league opening Saturday home conquest of then-No. 13 Kentucky.
By the time Alabama found a semblance of offensive rhythm, cutting LSU’s lead 79-75 with 1:46 left on two Riley Norris free throws, it just couldn’t get over the hump.
“We did fight back a little bit and in the second half we found a line-up that had some continuity and chemistry as well as competitive spirit,” said Johnson, whose team fell to 10-4 overall and 1-1 in the SEC after losing for the first time in over a month. “Fortunately, we were able to cut the lead down.
“But LSU was outstanding tonight. They were full of energy and did a nice job of protecting their home court. They came out in the first half and shot the ball extremely well.”
LSU (11-3, 1-0) entered the night third in the SEC in field goal percentage at 49 percent, but it certainly wasn’t because of 3-point accuracy. The Tigers were 11th in the league hitting just 33.1 percent.
But late in the first half against the Crimson Tide, the Tigers caught a wave of sizzling 3-point shooting and rode it all the way into halftime for 43-28 lead.
Five of the Tigers’ last six field goals in the final 5:13 were 3s, including two in the final 38 seconds ending with reserve freshman forward Darius Days banking in a 3 from the top of the key as the halftime buzzer sounded.
The closing burst was fueled by five Crimson Tide turnovers in the final five minutes. Alabama’s guards tried to force the issue with one-on-one drives into waiting defensive traffic.
Until that point, it was still a one-possession game. LSU led 24-21 at the 5:54 mark with 16 of Alabama’s points coming in the paint.
But when Days hit a 3-pointer with 5:13 left to start the Tigers’ 19-7 first-half closing run, Alabama got too desperate offensively.
Virtually every stat category was even at the end of the night. Both teams made 22 free throws (LSU attempted one more). Alabama held 36-35 rebounding edge. LSU had 16 turnovers to the Tide’s 15. Alabama had a 34-32 advantage in paint points and 39-36 in bench points after LSU’s bench outscored the Tide 27-10 in the first half.
LSU scored three more field goals than Alabama and they were three 3-point baskets that ultimately provided the Tigers’ nine-point victory margin.
The Tide’s biggest defensive bugaboo was failing to stop sophomore Tremont Waters, LSU’s pocket rocket 5-11 (and that’s being generous) point guard.
Alabama tried several defenders on Waters, including freshman flash Kira Lewis Jr. who scored a team-high 15 points. But none of them could consistently stay in front of the crafty Waters, who finished with 19 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds.
Also, an unexpected difference maker was LSU 6-11 senior center Kavell Bigby-Williams, who sat out last year as a transfer from Oregon where he played 37 games for the Ducks’ 2017 Final Four team as a junior college transfer.
Bigby-Williams scored 14 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked five shots, which was more in every category than Alabama starting forwards Donta Hall and Tevin Mack combined.
“I realize it is not really about the minutes you play, it is about how productive you are in the minutes you play.,” said Bigby-Williams, who started against Alabama after being in and out of the starting lineup based on matchups.
LSU coach Will Wade said his team wouldn’t have beat the Tide without Bigby-Williams.
“I said in the offseason if we would have had him last year we would have won more games,” Wade said. “He was a huge difference maker tonight.”
Alabama doesn’t get another shot at LSU again this season until March 2 in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide would do well to open that game in the 2-3 zone defense. It cut Waters’ penetrations during Alabama’s rally in the game’s last 10 minutes and completely stagnated LSU’s offensive movement.
”I think we are a much better team than we showed tonight,” Johnson said. “We need all of our guys to show up and play, and it is my job to get them ready.”
He has four days to do that. Next on Alabama’s early January menu is a Saturday home date against Texas A&M, which lost 85-74 at Kentucky Tuesday night.