BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) Ben Simmons‘ LSU teammates lowered their gaze, shook their heads and laughed incredulously as Simmons politely floated the remote possibility of returning for his sophomore year.
More than likely, the star 6-foot-10 freshman played his final regular season home game for LSU on Tuesday night, and he made it a good one.
Simmons had 22 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, and LSU held off struggling Missouri 80-71 on Tuesday night to stay alive for at least a share of the Southeastern Conference regular season title.
“A lot was put on that young man’s plate. … He’s always come to work; he’s been tremendous,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of Simmons, who has now scored at least 20 points in his past five games and has 21 double-doubles this season. “If he does leave, he’s one of the guys I’ve thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed coaching.”
Fans in the LSU student section chanted, “One more year!” for Simmons, who smiled broadly as he acknowledged them.
“It was kind of funny,” said Simmons, who is widely projected to be the top pick in next summer’s NBA draft. “We’ll see what happens.”
Simmons was 6 of 8 from the field and hit 10 of 11 free throws. Jones said both he and Simmons were disappointed with Simmons’ six turnovers, three of which came as Missouri trimmed a 22-point halftime deficit all the way down to three points.
“But how can you argue with 22 and 14 – 6 of 8 from the field?” Jones added. “That was a tremendous stat line. … He played extremely well outside of that area where we had the turnovers.”
Antonio Blakeney scored 18 points, hitting a late 3-pointer and mid-range jumper to help LSU (18-12, 11-6 SEC) secure what initially looked to be an easy victory before Missouri (10-20, 3-14), which trailed by 22 at halftime, put together a 19-6 run to get as close as three points with less than five minutes to go.
Tim Quarterman scored 11 points with six assists for LSU, which entered the night one game behind SEC-leading Kentucky and Texas A&M, both of whom also won.
LSU shot nearly 53 percent from the field and made 11 more free throws (18-7) than Missouri.
Missouri, which turned the ball over 13 times in the first half, played a much more composed second half, shooting 60 percent (18 of 30) and committing just two turnovers during the last 20 minutes in an effort to pull out what would have been its first and only road victory this season.
“Obviously, in the first half we were horrible. We had no energy and turned the ball over too much. We didn’t get back on defense,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “We had a good discussion at halftime and I really wasn’t sure how we would respond.”
K.J. Walton‘s 3 pulled Mizzou to 65-62 with 4:48 to go, but Simmons found Blakeney for a 3 on LSU’s next possession, and Missouri was not able to get within four points after that.
“Ben attracted the whole defense and he kicked it out to me,” Blakeney said of his momentum changing 3. “I just tried to knock it down.”
Craig Victor scored 10 points for LSU, which closed out its home schedule with an 8-1 conference record in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Missouri: Missouri will finish its season with a road record of 0-11. … Rosburg has scored at least 10 points in seven of his last eight games. … Walton had 11 points.
LSU: Guard Keith Hornsby was among three players honored before the game on Senior Night, along with guards Josh Gray and Henry Shortess. Hornsby missed his fourth straight game with a groin injury and it remains unclear if he will play in the postseason. … At halftime, the crowd gave a standing ovation for retiring radio play-by-play announcer Jim Hawthorne, who was presented with a framed purple No. 36 jersey to mark the number of LSU basketball seasons in which he called games.
LSU took the lead for good when Victor’s jumper made it 4-2 a little more than two minutes into the game. LSU had its first double-digit lead when Brandon Sampson‘s layup made it 21-10 just more than 10 minutes in. Sampson’s 3 shortly after capped a 16-4 run that seemed to mark the onset of a runaway victory for LSU.
Mizzou’s flurry of first-half turnovers included Simmons’ steal that led directly to LSU’s first 20-point lead on Victor’s jumper in the final minute of the opening half.
Missouri: Hosts Florida on Saturday
LSU: Visits No. 22 Kentucky on Saturday.