BATON ROUGE — That's how you end a regular season.
The LSU basketball team put a bow on its season of significant improvement Saturday afternoon with an impressive, 78-57, win over possible NCAA Tournament team Mississippi State in front of a crowd of 9,067 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
And the Tigers (17-13, 8-10 Southeastern Conference) did it with force, style and precision as they out-rebounded State, 33-28, outscored it in the paint, 28-26, out-shot it 52 percent from the field to 41 and from 3-point range at 48 percent to 26 while committing only 11 turnovers.
"Thought it was one of our most complete games all year," first-year coach Will Wade said.
And on Senior Day, senior forward Aaron Epps of Tioga High near Alexandria had one of his best games, hitting 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range. Epps hit his last 3-pointer off an around-the-back pass from freshman sensation point guard Tremont Waters for a 73-55 lead with 2:19 to go that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
But that was not the final flourish. Senior walk-on Reed Vial of Baton Rouge hit the first field goal of his two-year LSU career on a 3-pointer with 13 seconds to go for the 78-57 final. His teammates soon stormed the court to congratulate him.
And senior Duop Reath added 12 points and eight rebounds with a blocked shot and a steal.
Waters finished with 14 points and 10 assists.
"His fingerprints were all over this game," Wade said.
Even up-and-down junior guard Brandon Sampson played one of his best games, hitting 16 points and adding some rare defense with three steals.
"He was awesome. He was very good today on offense and defense," Wade said.
"We struggled to defend them all day, and we struggled to score against their defense," State coach Ben Howland said. "We were late getting there on some of their pop outs (to 3-point range). Epps was particularly good. He gave us problems."
Wade, whose team dropped two straight coming in and never won more than two straight since January, did not see this coming. On Friday night, he told his director of operations, Nelson Hernandez, that he thought this finale could be a dud.
While walking off the court with Hernandez Saturday, Wade told him, "'Man, we've made quite a bit more progress probably than we thought. They've been taking in a lot more than we thought.' They really care, maybe more than we thought. They care about each other, and I thought today was a crescendo of that. Hopefully, we can carry over how we played today into St. Louis next week."
The Tigers will begin play in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday or Thursday as anything from the 12th to 10th seed, depending on how they finish in the standings through the final regular season SEC games Saturday night.
Wade may be wrong about how his team plays then as well. That is how this team has been all season — hard to figure. There were eight wins over top 50 Ratings Percentage Index teams — Michigan, Houston, Memphis, Texas A&M (twice), Arkansas (twice) and Missouri.
"Don't remind me," Wade said.
"Also a lot of losses to some sub top 50 teams," he said, such as Stephen F. Austin, Georgia (twice), Vanderbilt and South Carolina just last Wednesday.
But when LSU has been on with the right match-up, look out. Unfortunately, finishing below .500 in the SEC with seven straight road losses will not get you into the NCAA Tournament even in a year in which eight SEC teams may make the field.
We're an NIT team, yes," Wade said, finally admitting what has been true for weeks, though even the national media missed it. "I told my team after the South Carolina game that. The NIT would be a great step for us. We could make a run and get to New York. That would be a great year just to get in the thing. I do think we deserve to keep playing."
On Saturday, LSU proved it still wants to play, which is what it is all about and what last year's team and the 2016-17 team did not want to do. They both wanted to just go home.
That illustrates the progress Wade has made on the court as well as his increase in wins by seven overall and six in the SEC. The recruiting class coming in will help LSU win more regardless of match-up.
"Hopefully, in the future, we'll have a little more versatility and have more ways we can beat teams," Wade said. "That's not a criticism of this team. That's who we are."
At this time next year, what LSU will be is a team a few wins over .500 in the SEC, one or two wins beyond 20 overall, and off the bubble and in the NCAA Tournament.