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NCAA Tournament: LSU fends off never-say-die effort from Yale, wins 79-74

The Bulldogs refuse to let the game get away from them, but it was too little, too late.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Louisiana State vs Yale John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The mid-major portion of Thursday’s NCAA Tournament action opened up with a matchup between No. 14 Yale and No. 3 LSU. The Tigers would hold on for a 79-74 win, but the Bulldogs didn’t make it easy as they threatened until the final seconds.

It was a game that swung heavily on runs.

LSU had the first, scoring the first nine points of the game as their athleticism seemed to overwhelm the Bulldogs early. LSU interim head coach Tony Benford, who is stepping in for the suspended Will Wade, had his Tigers ready to go, but they would not blow the doors off as it seemed they might on the strength of that opening run.

Yale senior guard Alex Copeland (24 points) got hot and was able to bring the Bulldogs within two midway through the first half. LSU would respond, and a 9-2 run created some breathing room. The Tigers held Yale star Miye Oni (5 points, 2-16 FG) to a single basket in the first half, and limited throughout the game. LSU ended the first half on a 15-4 run— keyed by Tremont Water — to give the Tigers a 45-29 halftime lead.

In the second half, LSU extended its lead up to 17 at the point. Yale, however, began to chip away. The Bulldogs hunkered down defensively and used a 10-2 run to cut it down to a 10 point game with 14:22 to go. Copeland, coming out of California prep school power Harvard Westlake single handedly kept Yale in the game, and a team who was known for its offensive explosiveness used a tough defense to stay within distance.

To that end, LSU scored just 12 points in the first 10 minutes in the second half. Yale was able to cut it to 57-50 with 8:25 to go, and the bettors with LSU -6.5 tickets likely started sweating.

That likely increased as the Bulldogs refused to go away until the bitter end.

Oni missed three pointer that could’ve cut it to a single possession game with just over a minute left, but the Bulldogs got hot as it reached desperation time. They hit four three’s in the final minute — two from Copeland, two from Jordan Bruner (16 points) — to put LSU at the line with plenty of pressure. Bruner’s second three cut the game to a single possession (77-74) with nine seconds left.

But LSU’s work at the free throw line was able to keep the Bulldogs from ever having the ball with a chance a tie. Skylar Mays converted a pair from the line after that Bruner three to effectively seal the game for the SEC’s regular season champion.

The Tigers move on to face the winner of No. 6 Maryland and No. 11 Belmont.

While the Bulldogs did not recapture their magic from the 2016 NCAA Tournament, they did win 22 games and made their second NCAA Tournament appearance under James Jones. Oni — the team’s unquestioned star despite a rough Thursday — and Bruner have eligibility remaining, making the Bulldogs a safe bet to remain a factor in the Ivy League next season.