Thornton leads No. 23 LSU past Auburn, 79-72
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP)—Trent Johnson needed less than one full season as LSU’s head coach to transform the Tigers into one of the elite teams in the Southeastern Conference.
Marcus Thornton scored 25 points and No. 23 LSU clinched the top seed in the SEC West Division while snapping Auburn’s four-game winning streak, 79-72 on Saturday night.
“There is more out there for us to accomplish,” Johnson said. “Nobody in the locker room wanted to cut down the nets. … They were very subdued and relaxed. It was a businesslike approach. We just want to win the next game.”
LSU (23-4, 11-1) only needs to split its last four games to guarantee itself the overall SEC regular season crown. LSU also still needs one more victory or one Mississippi State loss to win the SEC West outright, but because the Tigers have beaten MSU twice already this season, LSU will be the top seed out of its division, good for a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
“We have a pretty good cushion in the SEC, so we know that whatever team comes in is going to give us their best shot,” LSU guard Garrett Temple said. “Auburn was really hot and we just wanted to keep our streak going and play good basketball.”
LSU was 13-18 last season, which ended with a loss in the first-round of the conference tournament. John Brady, who’d taken the Tigers to the Final Four only two years earlier, was fired before the season ended. That opened the way for the hiring of Johnson, who coached Stanford to the regional semifinals of the 2008 NCAA tournament.
Johnson promised a team that played with tenacity and discipline at the very least, and so far has not disappointed.
In beating Auburn, LSU won its eighth straight overall, 11th straight in the SEC and improved to 18-1 at home, the lone loss coming against 16th-ranked Xavier on Jan. 24.
Bo Spencer and Tasmin Mitchell each scored 14 for LSU. Temple and Chris Johnson each scored 12, with Johnson also grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots. LSU outrebounded Auburn 41-29.
Korvotney Barber scored 19 points and Tay Waller added 17 for Auburn (17-10, 6-6), which played LSU to a 60-60 tie with just over 6 minutes to go before Thornton’s 3 put LSU in front for good.
“LSU is a very physical team offensively and defensively and we spent most of the night on our rear ends close to the buckets,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. “They’re very physical with Tasmin Mitchell and Thornton. They kind of pounded it to those two guys and they’re two good players and really hurt us tonight.”
Trailing by eight early in the second half, Auburn rallied to take a 56-52 lead after consecutive jumpers by Waller with about 10 minutes to go. Gritty putbacks by Mitchell and Quintin Thornton tied it, however, and LSU did not trail again.
After Barber’s jump hook tied the score at 60, Marcus Thornton scored seven of LSU’s next nine points, helping LSU to a 69-64 lead with 2:24 left.
Auburn pulled to 71-68 on Barber’s offensive rebound and dunk, but Lucas Hargrove missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with about a minute to go and Waller later missed a rushed, off-balance 3 as LSU began to seal the win by making eight free throws in the final minute.
LSU wound up 21-of-22 on free throws, while Auburn missed six of 13, with four misses coming in the last 6 minutes.
“Free throws have been hurting us all season,” Waller said. “That’s what cost us the game.”
Returning from a two-game absence because of a left ankle sprain and playing with a brace, Spencer had seven quick points and LSU took an 18-8 lead on Thornton’s left wing jumper.
“I felt good,” Spencer said. “I knew I was going to be tired because I hadn’t been running. It felt good just to get back out there.”
Auburn quickly responded with a 10-2 run on baskets by five different players, pulling to 20-18 Brendon Knox’s layup.
LSU held the lead throughout the first half, going up 36-29 after Mitchell spun into the lane for a hook shot.
Stealing a pair of risky cross-court passes, Auburn closed out the half with a pair of fast-break baskets, the second a roundhouse jam by Hargrove to cut it to 36-33 by halftime.
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