Tigers prepare to face three consecutive ranked foes
Four games into the SEC slate was a little too soon to deem a game a must-win for LSU, but the Tigers knew their Tuesday game against Auburn was important.
With a rugged road ahead in the early portion of the SEC schedule, LSU couldn't afford a third straight loss.
The Tigers avoided that by surviving a late bucket that forced overtime, as they dominated the extra session en route to a 65-58 victory. They hope to use the win as a springboard into Saturday's game at 17th-ranked Florida. The game against the Gators begins a stretch of three games in a row vs. ranked foes – two on the road before a home contest against No. 2 Kentucky on Jan. 28.
"(Tuesday) was really big especially with those last two road losses," guard Ralston Turner said, referring to back-to-back defeats at Alabama and Arkansas. "Now we have three ranked teams, and we know it's going to be tough. We're going to need everybody to play well."
In particular, LSU (12-6, 2-2 SEC) needs Turner and backcourt mates Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer to hold up against the Gators' talented trio.
Florida's Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Bradley Beal are arguably the league's best set of guards, combining for 45.9 points a game and posing a major threat from outside the 3-point arc – especially Boynton, whose 66 bombs led the nation through Jan. 16.
LSU has gotten flashes of strong play from all three guards at times this season. Hickey, a freshman point guard, has emerged as a reliable floor leader, and he heads to Florida off an 18-point, 7-rebound, 6-assist performance vs. Auburn.
Turner shrugged off a slump, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 11 points, one more than he had produced in the first three games.
Stringer remains a mystery. Although he buried a key 3-pointer in overtime to give LSU some breathing room, he is shooting only 32 percent from the field (16 of 50) since coming back from missing a month after a fainting spell in December.
Regardless of which player does what well, all three guards need to be effective vs. the Gators and beyond.
"It's going to be real tough, but we're just going to take it one game at a time," Hickey said. "We've got to be focused and be confident in our team and stay together."
TRENDING: Hickey has emerged along with center Justin Hamilton as a key for the Tigers because he's been unfazed by the rigors of running a team as a freshman point guard.
In four SEC starts, the 5-foot-11 Kentucky native has contributed 50 points and 17 assists while losing the ball only eight times.
"When the game is on the line, I want the ball in his hands," coach Trent Johnson said.
As nice as the scoring has been – Hickey has upped his scoring total to 9.6 points a contest – cutting down on turnovers has been his major upgrade.
Including Tuesday, when he had one turnover in 39 minutes, Hickey has coughed the ball up once or not at all in five of the last seven games while registering 25 assists.
Hickey also converted 4-of-6 free throws against Auburn, his first opportunities from the stripe since he missed all four he took against Marquette.
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--- at Florida, 6 p.m. Saturday (FSN)
KEY MATCHUPS: While not as flashy as Kentucky or as athletic as Mississippi State, Florida has a legitimate claim to being the SEC's most solid all-around team, in large part thanks to a three-guard lineup featuring veterans Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and freshman Bradley Beal. That trio was supplying 45.9 points a game and shooting a combined 41.2 percent from 3-point range, through Sunday, paced by Boynton's 18.7 points a contest and 45.8 percent accuracy.
That put the onus on LSU's three starting guards to produce offensively and offer some defensive resistance against those three. It's been a while since all three Tigers' guards have clicked in the same game, but that might be needed for LSU to spring the road upset.
FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore Jalen Courtney has made the least impact of his fellow classmates the last season-and-a-half, in part because of injury and in part because it's been hard to pinpoint where he fits. Now the 6-foot-8, 228-pound Courtney is on the cusp of making a major impact.
With forward Johnny O'Bryant likely out for another month and Ralston Turner struggling, Courtney could see more minutes at both the small forward and off guard spots – especially if he can show the kind of shooting consistency Turner has struggled with lately. Courtney is big enough to bang inside and defense quicker forwards, which gives him an edge over teammate Eddie Ludwig.
The collision left a sizable gash above Turner's right eye that was likely to require a few stitches.
"It was tough after it happened. I kind of had a throbbing feeling in my head," Turner said.
Despite the headache, Turner wound up hitting four of nine shots and three of six from 3-point territory – both his most since a season-best 22-point performance against Marquette on Dec. 19.
"Ralston looked like Joe Frazier, but I don't care," Johnson quipped. "He can look out his left eye. He shot it better looking out his left eye than both of them."
Johnson said O'Bryant's hand would be X-rayed Thursday and a decision about his status would be made then.
"He's a little frustrated with the running because he thinks he's on the cross country team right now," Johnson said. "He's staying upbeat, but he's been frustrated.
"If he's cleared, he's not playing until there's no pain."