BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU will go as far as freshmen Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney can take them.
If the pair of former Florida high school standouts can continue to perform as well in tandem as they did against the Florida Gators on Saturday night, the Tigers might have one last run at an NCAA tournament bid in them.
Blakeney scored a career-high 32 points, hitting eight straight free throws in the tense final half-minute, and LSU ended a three-game losing streak with a 96-91 victory over recently struggling Florida on Saturday night.
"He’s the best shooter on our team," Simmons said of Blakeney, who was 9 of 13 from the field, hitting two 3-pointers. "I believe he’s the best shooter in the SEC, so every time he gets an open look I want him to shoot."
Simmons had 22 points and 11 rebounds for the Tigers (17-12, 10-6 Southeastern Conference), who maintained an inside track to a double-bye in the SEC tournament by remaining in the top four in the league standings — one game out of first, in fact — with two regular season games left.
"It’s a testament to this young, inexperienced basketball team trying to continue to grow up and find our way," LSU coach Johnny Jones said. "You look at what (Blakeney) and Ben were able to do out there tonight — both of those guys freshmen. They really had a solid impact on how this game turned out."
Junior Tim Quarterman had 15 points for LSU, which shot 56 percent and led by as many as 18 in the second half before Florida got as close as one basket in the final half-minute.
"Our guys played incredibly hard the last 12 or 14 minutes," Florida first-year coach Michael White said. "Unfortunately, the game is 40 minutes long."
John Egbunu scored a career-high 22 points for Florida (17-12, 8-8), but missed seven free throws as the Gators lost their third straight.
"We have really put ourselves in a tough situation," Egbunu said in reference to Florida’s NCAA tournament chances. "We have to dig ourselves out of it."
Kasey Hill scored 16 and Devin Robinson 15 for Florida. Dorian Finney-Smith scored 14 points for the Gators before fouling out in the final minute.
The Tigers, who led 40-29 at halftime, went up 58-40 on Blakeney’s layup as he was fouled by Hill with 13:40 left.
Florida then methodically trimmed its deficit down to five when Robinson’s left wing 3 made it 83-78 with 1:06 to go.
By then, the Gators had started purposely putting LSU on the foul line and it nearly worked.
While Quarterman missed four of eight free throws in the last 1:05, Florida’s Hill hit his second 3 of the game and followed that up with a 3-point play on a driving layup as he was fouled to trim LSU’s lead to 90-88 with 19 seconds left.
But Blakeney made his last six free throws to ice it with the relieved crowd on its feet.
Florida: The Gators missed 10 of 25 free throws. … Florida was given a bench warning when White argued with officials who’d called an intentional foul against Egbunu with 2:41 left. … The Gators won the teams’ earlier meeting this season, 68-62 in Gainesville, Florida. … Florida has lost three straight for the first time this season.
LSU: The Tigers missed 13 of 43 free throws. … LSU’s record in SEC home games improved to 7-1. … Blakeney has scored 10 or more in six of seven games, reaching 30 points twice and 20 points three times in that stretch. … Jalyn Patterson scored 11 to match his season high. … Craig Victor scored 10 points.
A few hours before tip-off, fans gathered in front of LSU’s practice center for the unveiling of a statue of 83-year-old former Tigers and NBA star Bob Pettit, which stands on the same plaza as a bronze of Shaquille O’Neal throwing down a two-handed dunk. Joined by 10 grandchildren, Pettit helped pull back a tarp covering the bronze likeness of him, as he looked in college, rising for a jump shot. "I wish I had that many muscles and that much hair," Pettit said, adding that he never imagined as a young player that he’d ever receive such an honor. "My ambition as a sophomore in high school, when I got cut from the team, was to win a letter by the time I was a senior," Pettit said. "That’s all I wanted was to win a letter, and here I am this many years later with a statue next to Shaquille O’Neal. … I’m very flattered." Pettit scored 1,916 points at LSU from 1951-54. He then averaged 26.4 points per game during an 11-year, Hall-of-Fame NBA career with the Hawks in Milwaukee and St. Louis.