The 2011-12 regular season concludes with LSU (17-12, 7-8 SEC) traveling to face Auburn (14-15, 4-11) at 1 p.m. on The Plains.
For the purple-and-gold Tigers, it's the last chance before the postseason to take the kind of positive step it needs to extend its season beyond the SEC Tournament.
LSU led the Volunteers by 15 points in the first half and seven halfway through the second half but couldn't hold on.
"The mental part of this thing is real huge right now in terms of making sure they bounce back up and understand that we still have a lot of games to play if we play well," Johnson said.
Added sophomore guard Andre Stringer, "We've got to put it behind us like we have before this season and go out and play hard. We have games to win."
Indeed, there are games LSU has a chance to win and keep playing, starting with Saturday's trip.
With a win against Auburn, LSU would lock down either No. 6 or 7 seed for next week's SEC Tournament which would mean either a rematch with AU or a game vs. Georgia.
A loss today drops LSU into the 8 vs. 9 game against Arkansas, Ole Miss or Mississippi State.
The difference in 6/7 or 8/9 is who the quarterfinal foe would be. A higher seed would lead to a second-round contest vs. Florida or Vanderbilt. Playing in the 8/9 game means a looming showdown with prohibitive tournament favorite and national championship contender Kentucky.
Before that all shakes out, though, the task at hand is figuring out how to win a second SEC game on the road against a team that took LSU to overtime on Jan. 17 in Baton Rouge before falling 65-58.
LSU has lost its last two games because it has let down defensively. Tennessee shot 66.7% in the second half (prior to overtime) Wednesday and dominated the inside. Ole Miss shot well from everywhere on the floor in a 72-48 romp on Feb. 25.
That's an about-face for an LSU defense that has ranked in the top 3-4 of the SEC all season in scoring defense, field-goal defense and 3-point defense.
"We're not defending at the rate we need to," Johnson said.
The good news is that the Tigers were able to rediscover their offensive identity against Tennessee. Center Justin Hamilton bounced back from two lackluster games with 17 points, and forwards Johnny O'Bryant, Storm Warren and Malcolm White were all big factors as the LSU front court combined for 43 points and 21 rebounds.
That bodes well against Auburn because in the last meeting, AU got a big day from post man Rob Chubb (15 points and 12 rebounds) and won the battle on the backboards, 44-39.
Auburn won most of the interior battles despite a lackluster day by forward Kenny Gabriel, who averages 12.1 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.
"We've just got to continue to pound the ball inside," said O'Bryant, whose energy and athleticism inside was missing against Auburn before as he recuperated from a broken hand. "Our post guys have been doing a great job all season. We have to follow the game plan of playing inside out."
AU will feature a new look as well with the addition of 6-foot-6 swingman Noel Johnson, a transfer from Clemson. Johnson missed the first game and has been slow to adjust since he arrived. The former LSU recruit is coming off a season-best 9 points in a 55-49 loss at Alabama earlier this week.
"The first time around he was banged up a little bit," Trent Johnson said. "He's a multi-talented player. He changes them because he can play the one, two and the three."
That fits well with an Auburn lineup in which most of the players other than Chubb are interchangeable, making matchups tricky on both ends of the floor.
Gabriel and Johnson can play guard or forward, as can reserves Josh Langford and Allen Payne.
"Their versatility, their skill sets and their athleticism causes problems," Trent Johnson said.
As has been the case most of the season, junior Frankie Sullivan was the ringleader in the overtime loss with 19 points, although the LSU defense – led by Stringer – shut him down in the second half.
Sullivan was 5-of-12 from 3-point range, while the rest of the team was 1-for-12 from outside the arc. Keeping the 6-foot-1 sharpshooter in check is a must Saturday.
"I think I give guys a different look," the 5-9 Stringer said. "We need to change things up and if we do that, we can keep a guy like him off balance and that's what you have to do."
What LSU has to do is put strong offensive and defensive efforts together and finish the regular season on a positive note – aiming for an 8-8 finish after the Tigers wandered through two- and three-win SEC campaigns the last two years.
Johnson downplayed the notion of an 8-8 finish being much different than 7-9. But with an eye on a potential spot in the NIT, a .500 league record would likely carry more weight.
"All we can do is come in and keep practicing hard," O'Bryant said. "Wherever that takes us, we feel like we've had a great season. We've still got games to play and we want to play as long as we can."