COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After a struggling stretch, LSU needed someone to step up. Darius Days was ready for the call.
Days had 18 points and set the tone for the desperate Tigers with four 3-pointers in the first half of an 86-80 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night.
LSU (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) was ranked most of the season, but came in having lost four of its past five.
Days, the 6-foot-6 sophomore, “played awesome,” Tigers coach Will Wade said. “When the chips are down, you need someone to step up.”
Days helped LSU open a 19-point second-half lead on the way to ending a two-game losing streak.
“It was good that I came out and hit those threes early,” said Days, who came in shooting less than 28% from behind the arc.
Days was even happier with the result since perhaps there will be a better, happier environment at practices. “Practices have really been fun. I’m just going to say that,” Days said.
Javonte Smart also had 18 points for the Tigers, who reached double-figure league victories for the second straight season.
South Carolina (16-11, 8-6) cut a 19-point second-half deficit to 84-80 with 17.9 seconds left, but Smart followed with two foul shots to close out the win.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin was disappointed at his team’s defensive attention to detail. He said his team’s late rally might give the impression the Gamecocks played hard. “No we didn’t,” he said. “We got our tails kicked.”
Early on, LSU used accurate shooting and a defensive fierceness to keep South Carolina on its heels most of the game.
The Gamecocks drew within 39-37 with a minute left before halftime when Days hit his fourth 3-pointer, then stole the ball from Wildens Leveque in the open court for an uncontested layup that sent LSU into the locker room up 44-37.
Trendon Watford, Aundre Hyatt and Charles Manning Jr. all had 3-pointers early in the second half and Days put back Manning’s long miss to put the Tigers ahead 57-46.
Keyshawn Bryant and Jermaine Couisnard had 15 points each to lead South Carolina. Bryant also had 10 boards for his first career double-double.
Days left the game and went to the locker room with about 13 minutes to go after getting poked in the eye during one exchange under South Carolina’s basket. He finished two points shy of his career best, set twice this year.
Days said he was fine.
Watford had 15 points and 10 rebounds for his fifth double-double this season.
LSU’s quickness and skill kept it ahead early whenever South Carolina tightened things up.
The Tigers had a 16-5 burst to lead 24-17 with 11:15 left in the opening half. When the Gamecocks scored seven straight to tie it up, LSU answered with seven in a row to pull back in front.
Again, South Carolina rallied to cut the lead to 31-29 and LSU broke off an 8-0 run the next two minutes for a 10-point lead.
THE BIG PICTURE
LSU: The Tigers look like they’ve taken a step back in the right direction for a return to the NCAA Tournament. They were ranked much of the season until losing four of their previous five before coming to South Carolina. In this one, LSU showed off the explosiveness that will help in the postseason.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks, too, were making a late push for the NCAA bubble with a stretch of eight wins in 10 SEC games. But back-to-back defeats to Mississippi State and LSU have them sliding backwards at the wrong time.
MAKING A CHANGE
LSU’s Wade gave freshman guard Aundre Hyatt his first career college start over sophomore Emmitt Williams against South Carolina. Williams has started 24 games this season. Wade said Hyatt “does a lot of things that really helped us win.”
Hyatt finished with three points and a steal in 13 minutes.
South Carolina’s Martin said the tight turnaround — his team got home at 3 a.m. Thursday from its loss at Mississippi State — made it hard to adequately prepare the team for LSU’s aggressive, relentless nature. “First time all year, I’m disappointed,” he said.
LSU is at Florida on Wednesday night.
South Carolina is home against Georgia on Wednesday night.