On the way to things getting ugly, Georgia did what it does best Wednesday night against LSU at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
The Bulldogs did their darndest to made things even uglier.
Before Georgia’s method worked, though, LSU dug deep and found a comfort zone with its own MO.
The suddenly surging Tigers soared in front early, survived a Bulldogs’ rally and then found their touch from the free-throw line just in time on the way to a 61-53 triumph.
LSU (17-10, 7-6 SEC) won its fourth game in a row and climbed another rung up the SEC standings – into a fourth-place tie with Tennessee, with both teams half a game ahead of Alabama. The Crimson Tide plays at Arkansas Thursday night.
The latest Tigers’ victory wasn’t easy before, during or afterward for Tigers’ coach Trent Johnson, who went head-to-head with close friend Mark Fox for the third time.
The Bulldogs (12-15, 3-10) made every offensive possession a fist fight and all but took center Justin Hamilton out of the equation on that end of the court. Hamilton finished with 7 points – half his season scoring average – and took only five shots from the floor.
“Every time I had the ball, they had a lot of guys around me,” said Hamilton, who snatched a game-high 9 rebounds.
To combat that added attention on Hamilton, LSU had to rely on other options.
Andre Stringer delivered his best SEC game of the season with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting, anchored by four 3-pointers, which matched a career best. And freshman forward Johnny O’Bryant seized advantage of Georgia’s extra attention on Hamilton by blowing past the Bulldogs inside early on and finished with 14 points.
O’Bryant and Stringer got the Tigers revved up and fueled a 10-0 start, culminating with O’Bryant’s three-point play when he snared Stringer’s missed 3-pointer and followed it up at the 16:31 juncture.
Before Georgia adjusted, O’Bryant produced nine of LSU’s first 21 points.
“We threw the first couple of punches,” O’Bryant said. “We came out more aggressive than Georgia – attacking them, going at them.
“They left the baseline open, so I knew if I spun to get to the middle, there wasn’t anybody there.”
|O'Bryant: 14 points and 8 rebounds against the Bulldogs|
The Bulldogs eventually balanced their defensive attention and neutralized O’Bryant, but seniors Storm Warren and Malcolm White picked up the slack by poking several mid-range daggers at Georgia’s defense.
The last of those step-out jumpers from Warren gave LSU a 29-17 advantage and came on the heels of a stretch when the Bulldogs struggled to score, missing 6-of-8 field goals.
With 2½ minutes left before halftime, the Tigers were on the verge of blowing out Georgia.
It never materialized, though, because the Bulldogs’ scrappiness kicked in.
The three Georgia guards each scored in a tide-turning 6-0 burst and LSU got out of rhythm on offense. Gerald Robinson’s lightning-quick dribble-drive right before halftime closed the gap to 29-23.
“We knew they run a lot of similar stuff to us and we were going to have to out-execute them and go possession-by-possession, grind it out,” Hamilton said.
With the Bulldogs content to grind, the Tigers fell into a rut offensively.
Georgia missed 10 of its first 13 field goals after halftime, but LSU couldn’t pull any further away than eight points.
A spark from reserve forwards John Cannon and Nemanja Djurisic, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s 3-pointer, a ferocious Donte’ Williams slam-dunk and then his three-point play on a stickback melted the deficit to 45-42 with 6:49 to play.
With the Bulldogs clogging up the inside, Stringer jacked in a 3-pointer off the dribble behind Hamilton’s screen and then he fed Ralston Turner for a second straight trey from the right wing to expand the lead back to 51-44.
“They did a lot of good things defensively against us in terms of they put a lot of pressure on our posts and made them passers, getting us out of rhythm with their zone and their man,” Johnson said.
“We did a really good job of keeping some poise because when the (lead) got to 3-4, I thought we showed our fragileness a little bit. The guys started losing a little confidence, but then we found our way back.”
Georgia made one final dash and got within 57-53 with 27 seconds to go when Robinson scored the last of his 17 points. But Turner calmly swished two free throws, part of six in a row he combined with Hamilton to hit in the last 31.5 seconds.
That was enough of a cushion for LSU to survive a gritty performance and maintain the hopes – however flickering they might be – of running the table over the final seven games and jumping into contention for an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Tigers head to Ole Miss (15-12, 5-8) on Saturday to take on a team in the throes of three-game losing streak after falling to Tennessee 73-60 on Wednesday. LSU walloped the Rebels 81-55 on Jan. 5 in the SEC opener, but Ole Miss played without Murphy Holloway that day.
“We know that going to Ole Miss is going to be a hostile environment,” Stringer said. “They’re a very good team and they’ve gotten better throughout the season.”