But Saturday's 71-65 LSU victory over Arkansas at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center is a big first step to begin a tell-tale month for the Tigers after they endured a treacherous first wave of SEC play.
Salty defense, a busy and successful day at the free-throw line and the re-emergence of Ralston Turner as a go-to scorer were three of the major ingredients in the victory, which snapped a three-game losing streak.
Turner led the Tigers (13-9, 3-5 SEC) with 16 points and spearheaded a 21-for-33 day at the foul stripe by hitting 7-of-8. LSU's defense stymied the Razorbacks (16-7, 4-4) most of the day, limiting them to 3-of-13 accuracy from 3-point range and creating 19 turnovers.
Center Justin Hamilton added 13 points and 4 blocked shots, and Anthony Hickey and Eddie Ludwig chimed in with 12 points apiece.
The Tigers also wore Arkansas down inside, winning the battle on the glass 43-39 with Hamilton and Johnny O'Bryant each collecting 11 rebounds – both had 6 defensive and 5 on offense.
"It was huge," Turner said of Saturday's game, the first of five at home in February. "We had a tough stretch the past few weeks. It was important for us to get this win because it's good for us. This is the last month to try and make a push and this is the first step."
LSU took that step with perseverance, especially down the stretch when the Razorbacks kept threatening to erase a lead that ballooned to 41-31 early in the second half on back-to-back Hickey fast-break drives and a Hamilton follow shot.
The double-digit advantage was short-lived, but the luxury of playing from in front never disappeared.
|Johnny O'Bryant: Offensive woes, but grabbed 11 rebounds and was a presence on defense|
Arkansas came at the Tigers with jabs and its signature pressure defense and clawed back a little at a time, melting the difference to 50-49 Mardracus Wade's transition 3-pointer with 9:02 left in the game.
Every time LSU looked wobbly, though, somebody came through and settled things down.
O'Bryant didn't shoot well, but was an important force inside and took pressure off of Hamilton.
Turner eschewed deep jump shots most of the day and either dibble-drove or slashed inside to get open – often drawing fouls.
Senior guard Chris Bass helped take the stress off Hickey against the Arkansas press and that helped Hickey trigger one press-break opportunity after another.
"We had seen their pressure once before," said Hickey, who added 3 assists and 3 steals to his stat line. "We executed well in practice and were very prepared. In the game, they ran a lot of presses, and I was able to hit the open man. We were able to run our fast break and hit the open shots."
Three plays by Hickey represented the day for LSU: A blend of frustrating Arkansas with stingy defense, attacking the Hogs' press and also making them slow down against an effective half-court offense.
With the Tigers ahead 61-58, Arkansas playmaker B.J. Young headed through the lane in transition. Hickey stepped in his path and Young ran over him – he was called for a charge, his fifth foul, to erase a layup.
"I knew he was going to attack the rim and I figured if I stepped up, he'd probably run over me," Hickey said.
"It hurt real bad. I thought I had a concussion for a moment."
He didn't, but that exchange left the Hogs with a headache.
Moments after the charge, Hickey handled the ball for most of a possession and whittled the shot clock down to 10 seconds before hitting a feathery runner from 12 feet away for a 65-59 lead.
Then after Arkansas kept the margin at 67-63 with a pair of Rashad Madden free throws, Hickey gathered in a pass against the press, dashed down the floor and fed Ludwig for a wide-open layup that slammed the door with 19 seconds to go.
|Plenty of cause to be unhappy in Saturday's loss to LSU|
"I think when he's out there, they're a little more settled," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "I think he is a guy who can get them into the things they want to do. He hit a big shot, a big floater there, when we made a run at them. He's a good, little ballplayer."
While Anderson spoke glowingly of Hickey and the other Tigers, he wasn't as pumped about what he deemed "a discrepancy in the free throws."
Arkansas was whistled for 24 fouls, leading to 33 LSU free-throw attempts. The Tigers were called for 17 fouls, which sent the Hogs to the line 23times. LSU also blocked a season-high 12 shots and pestered Arkansas in the paint all day.
A little more than Anderson liked apparently.
"We had windows of opportunity to win on the road and we just didn't finish going down the stretch," Anderson said. "I thought there were some controversial plays that probably should have gone our way."
|Justin Hamilton: Second double-double this season with 13 points and 11 rebounds|
Asked to define controversial, Anderson said "They shot 33 free throws and we shot 23. That's controversial to me."
Wade led the Hogs with 15 points, while Julysses Nobles produced 14. Arkansas recorded only 7 steals and Wade, with 3, was the only Razorback with more than one.
Taken out of character by LSU – especially down the stretch – Arkansas could never quite get over the hump and never led after the 12:10 juncture of the first half.
"We were emphasizing on finishing a lot," Hamilton said. "In the last 10 minutes, we just wanted to really set each other up and play good solid defense. We got a couple charges that were crucial. Overall, we did a good job of coming together. There were a couple of times they made a run, but I think we responded really well."
The Tigers are back on the road Wednesday when they travel to Vanderbilt for an 8 p.m. contest. The Commodores have lost two in a row after a 73-65 setback at Florida on Saturday.