But a steady resolve and reliance on the one facet of the game that has been such a constant for the Tigers all season gave them a chance to steady themselves, and clutch play down the stretch from two of the players who have to be big the rest of the season sealed the deal.
That deal? The biggest home victory in LSU coach Trent Johnson's four-year tenure and a potentially huge building block for the rest of the 2011-12 campaign.
Ralston Turner pumped in back-to-back 3-pointers in a dizzying flurry on his way to a season-high 22 points and Justin Hamilton notched all of his 13 points in the closing 8:13 – seven from the free-throw line in the final 53 seconds – as the Tigers downed the Golden Eagles 67-59 at a lively Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU (8-3) handed Marquette its first loss of the season and the Tigers claimed their first victory against a ranked foe at home in Johnson's tenure. Monday's triumph was the first for LSU against a top-25 opponent at the PMAC since a 66-56 decision over No. 3 Florida in 2007. The last time the Tigers beat a higher ranked non-conference combatant in Baton Rouge was 2006, a 64-52 decision over sixth-ranked Texas A&M.
|LSU coach Trent Johnson had plenty of reason to smile Monday night.|
"Obviously a level of excitement in the locker room," said Johnson, who was animated throughout the game, at one point winding up for a celebratory fist pump when Hamilton drew a charge in the second half. "That's a big win for us against a good basketball team."
And there was absolutely nothing fluky about the Tigers' third victory this season against a power-conference team, the second time they have vanquished a Big East team.
They shot well. They out-rebounded the athletic Eagles 35-32. And most importantly, LSU turned in another stifling defensive performance – this time holding Marquette to 36.2% shooting.
Four nights after a dismal shooting performance, LSU shot a torrid 61.9% (13-of-21) in the second half and finished the night hitting at a season-best 53.5% clip (23-of-43). Turner led the charge, burying 4-of-5 3-pointers, while Storm Warren came off the bench to knock down 5-of-9 for 10 points.
It was Warren and fellow seniors Malcolm White and Chris Bass who entered the game and ignited a comeback after the Eagles stunned the Tigers and roared in front 13-0.
Each of the trio added some intensity and physicality to help LSU find its rhythm and eventually climb in front 21-20 on Warren's follow shot at the 7:53 juncture of the first half – capping a furious 21-7 surge.
|Storm Warren: Played a key role on both ends of the floor off the bench.|
"They came out and drew first blood," Warren said. "We knew we had to respond quickly before the game got away from us."
Added Johnson, "We got hit in the face to the tune of 13-0 and those guys came in and gave us great energy and competed their tails off. We got back in the thing and found out we can compete a little bit."
Especially with sticky defense as the backdrop.
Marquette cranked in five of its six field-goal tries – three from 3-point range – in the opening 3:32, the final two makes in transition.
After that opening salvo, the Eagles missed 19 of their next 22 floor shots and wound up shooting only 28.6% (8-of-28) in the first half. Every shot was contended, and unfettered fast-break looks were a rarity.
"As good as we were in the first 4 minutes of the first half, we were just as bad in the last 15 minutes," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "We started great and I thought we landed the first blow in the fight, but from that point forward they kept jabbing. They got us on our heels relative to our energy level."
Meanwhile, the Tigers also suddenly started clicking on offense.
After Turner ended LSU's drought by draining a 3 from the right corner at the 16:06 juncture, the Eagles followed that with a possession with six missed shots, an onslaught that the Tigers survived with in-your-face defensive energy.
On the heels of a timeout, LSU uncorked a 12-3 binge, fueled by two ferocious White slam dunks, a Warren fast-break drive and Turner's three free throws at the 10:57 mark. Warren torqued up the fervor even more when he scored eight of the Tigers' next 10 points, three on stickbacks – the last on a thunderous jam that whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
"Our defense is going to compete from beginning to end," Warren said.
"They got a couple of shots up and they fell for them and it got away from us a little bit. We knew we had to stick to it and turn it up a little bit, slow them down and make them play our game."
That worked to close out the first half with LSU in front 26-23.
After that, though, the Tigers beat the Eagles at their own game.
As was the case in the first half, LSU staggered out of the gate in the second half, turning the ball over on seven of its first 11 possessions. But Anthony Hickey banged in a pair of 3-pointers during that lurchy beginning to offset Marquette's best stretch of offensive execution of the final 20 minutes.
The Eagles inched ahead 31-29 on Jae Crowder's lane drive, part of his 22 points. Hickey's 3 put LSU back in front, and the next two times Marquette regained an edge, Turner delivered – hitting a trey from the right wing and a dribble-drive 15-footer that forged a 39-39 tie at 13:03.
In the three previous games, Turner was 7-for-34 from the field and struggled from long range as well.
No signs of that Monday.
"They were just rhythm shots," Turner said. "They weren't different. We shot the same shots. They were just all in rhythm. I think the difference this time was that I had a little more arch. My teammates did a good job of finding (me). I was just in the right place at the right time, and I stepped up and knocked them in. It came at the right time, so I'm not complaining."
Hamilton and John Isaac took over for the next stretch, teaming up for all 11 LSU points as the game swung back and forth.
Headed toward crunch time, the Eagles and Tigers swapped the lead four times – Turner burying 3s twice to give his team the lead back, the last time for good at 2:23.
|Anthony Hickey: Two second-half 3-pointers and 6 assists helped spark the Tigers' best shooting night of the season.|
"I try to distribute the ball to everybody," said Hickey, who notched 6 assists, four of those to Turner. "When Ralston got hot, I tried to feed him the ball and know where he was at all times."
Isaac also found a way to be in the right place at a key time.
Turner's final 3-pointer put LSU up 56-54 and Marquette's Junior Cadougan missed on the other end. Isaac snared the rebound and then worked his way open for a baseline jumper on the other end, a shot he stuck with 1:43 on the clock for a 58-54 cushion.
From that point, the Tigers sealed the deal at the free-throw line, knocking down 9-of-11 – Hamilton with 6-of-7.
The Eagles got as close as 63-59 when Darius Johnson-Odum pumped in a 3 with 14.9 seconds left, but that was their last gasp.
"This game shows us that the work we've put in and our dedication and commitment that we have to each other and on our defense pays off," Warren said.
With a five-game winning streak and their biggest head of steam since the 2008-09 SEC Championship season, the Tigers head to North Texas on Thursday for their final game before Christmas. LSU and the Mean Green tip off at 7 p.m. in Denton, Texas.