NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—The LSU Tigers are setting their sights a little higher this season.
Darrel Mitchell scored 21 points and the 24th-ranked Tigers beat Vanderbilt 77-66 Wednesday night to clinch a second straight Southeastern Conference Western Division title. Now they want their first SEC regular season title since 1999-2000 and a high seeding in the NCAA tournament.
“Winning the SEC West for the second year in a row is a significant thing, but we want to do a little bit better,” LSU coach John Brady said.
“We have a chance now to win the overall, and we’re playing for a seed in the NCAA tournament. That’s what we need to think about. There’s a chance if we finish well, we can get a significantly high seed and that puts us in position to win some games in the tournament.”
The Tigers (19-7, 11-2) are tied with No. 10 Tennessee in the SEC and both have three games left.
They gave Brady his first victory in Memorial Gym in five visits and LSU’s first here since Jan. 10, 1996. Kentucky’s Rupp Arena is the only SEC gym left where Brady has yet to win.
The Commodores had dominated this series in Nashville, winning 33 of the first 45. But Vanderbilt (14-10, 5-8) took its fourth home conference loss this season and a second straight to a ranked team.
Coach Kevin Stallings preferred to remain an optimist when asked how much this hurt.
“For all I know this could end every chance we have, or the rainbow might be waiting right outside the doorway. You just never know,” he said. “We will have to keep going like we have a chance because you just never know what’s going to happen.”
Glen Davis added 16 points and 11 rebounds for LSU, and Tyrus Thomas had 15 points and 14 rebounds as the Tigers used their size advantage to dominate inside. They outrebounded Vanderbilt 46-29 and outscored the Commodores 34-20 in the paint, which gave them a decided advantage at the free throw line (24-of-35 to 11-of-13).
“You won’t win a jumping contest against them,” Vanderbilt forward Shan Foster said.
Thomas said he is motivated by trying to win a championship ring.
“Hopefully, we can win more than the SEC West, we can win the entire SEC,” he said. “It means a lot to us.”
LSU led by as many as 13 points in the second half only to watch the desperate Commodores rally within 64-62 with 3:16 left on two free throws by Alex Gordon.
But Davis answered on the other end with a dunk that shook the backboard, then Gordon lost the ball under his own basket to Davis on Vandy’s next possession. Davis hit two free throws that helped seal the victory.
“They had to win this game against us, and we’re a big resume win,” Brady said. “I told our team we were going to get Vandy’s best shot. For us to win this game, it gives us a lot of confidence.”
Derrick Byars led Vanderbilt with 18 points, while Foster had 13 of his 15 in the first half and Julian Terrell added 10.
Senior guard Mario Moore, their leading scorer last season, was back on the bench after missing four games on a medical leave of absence. He did not play, and Stallings said he needs more practice first.
LSU took control by opening the second half by hitting its first four shots in an 11-2 spurt that included a 3-pointer from Davis, who had hit only two of his first 15 attempts this season. The Tigers were up 53-41 on a jumper by Tasmin Mitchell with 11:24 left.
Byars got the Commodores back in the game with three straight 3s, the last pulling Vanderbilt within 61-58 with 6:24 remaining in a display that also revived the crowd.
The Tigers took the lead for good when Darrel Mitchell hit LSU’s first 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to make it 31-30. It was a rough half for LSU with Vanderbilt twice leading by as many as seven points, the last at 21-14 on a one-handed shot by Foster.
The Commodores didn’t turn the ball over for the first 10 minutes, and Terrell’s tip-in of a missed layup by Gordon gave Vandy a 30-28 lead with 2:25 left in the first half.