The Tigers’ freshman point guard was held scoreless in the second half of his team’s loss to Northwestern to open the Charleston Classic. So when LSU was locked in another tight contest with Western Kentucky Friday, Hickey gave the Tigers exactly what they needed to pull away for a 76-57 victory.
Justin Hamilton had 18 points and Hickey 17 added as the Tigers (2-2) broke a two-game losing streak and will face either VCU or Georgia Tech at 1:30 p.m. Sunday for fifth place in the eight-team tournament at TD Arena.
And they’ll need Hickey to do exactly what he did against Western Kentucky (1-3).
LSU coach Trent Johnson said Hickey played under control, slowing things down at the right times so the SEC team could play off its height advantage over the Sun Belt Conference opponent.
Hamilton, a 7-foot, 260-pound Iowa State transfer, was the biggest beneficiary with a career-best scoring performance. Johnson was so pleased, he went down the bench in the final minute to congratulate Hickey’s showing.
“Basically, I just told him good job running the team,” Johnson said.
Hickey said there’s even more ahead. The Tigers, who had lost to Coastal Carolina and the Wildcats this week on their South Carolina trip, put an emphasis on finishing games, something that did not happen in those losses. Johnson re-emphasized that at halftime and the Tigers responded.
Ahead 40-38 at the break, LSU scored the first nine points of the half. Senior Storm Warren hit two jumpers, Hamilton had two foul shots — he was 8-of-8 from the line — and Hickey nailed a 3-pointer. When Western Kentucky’s Kevin Kaspar responded with a 3, Hickey drove the lane for a bucket to put LSU up 51-41.
The Hilltoppers closed to 51-45 before going nearly 8 minutes without scoring. The Tigers took advantage, pushing the lead to 20 points before Western Kentucky scored again.
“We had a tough start early on,” Hickey said. “We had to find our focus.”
The 5-11 Hickey certainly did. He made seven of his 13 floor shots and added 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals as LSU ended its early season funk.
Hilltoppers coach Ken McDonald said his players shrunk at times when pushed by LSU.
“That’s just something we’ve got to get over with the physical battle,” he said. “We fought hard and we’re getting better.”
Turnovers also didn’t help. Western Kentucky committed 20 and, after going 14-of-14 on foul shots in the first half, were just 4-of-13 the rest of the way.
“Credit LSU for turning the pressure up, we’ve just got to handle it better,” McDonald said.
The game opened strangely with WKU being assessed a technical foul because its starting lineup was not in the official scorebook the required 10 minutes before tipoff. McDonald earned a technical of his own moments later on LSU’s first possession when no foul was called on a player collision near the top of the key. Hamilton made all four free throws to put LSU up 4-0 less than 20 seconds in.
“I guess Coach Johnson thought it was important to begin the game with a technical,” McDonald said. “That’s on him.”
The Tigers had their own troubles scoring in the first half, going 0-of-8 from the floor to start until Ralston Turner’s 3-pointer with 12:17 ended the drought.
The teams combined for more turnovers than points — 10 to 7 — in the opening 5 minutes. They finished the half with 24 turnovers (12 apiece) and three technicals after LSU’s Malcolm White earned one midway through the period.
Both clubs found their stride as the game continued. Turner’s 3-pointer with 2:52 gave LSU a 33-31 lead and the Tigers went to locker room up 40-38.