NEW ORLEANS – For a few uncomfortable minutes Thursday afternoon in the opening game of the SEC Tournament at New Orleans Arena, the LSU basketball team looked awfully similar to the one that fizzled down the stretch of the regular season.
Turnovers – six of them in the game’s first 6 minutes. Missed shots. Wasted chances. Getting beat on the backboards by a smaller Arkansas team.
But much like the season the Tigers have navigated this winter to get where they are, they adjusted, improved and figured out how to do the things they do best.
The result: An entertaining 70-54 triumph over the Razorbacks, anchored by what might’ve been LSU’s best half of the season over the final 20 minutes.
Now the reward for running away Arkansas out of the gym is a quarterfinal showdown against top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Kentucky at noon Friday (SEC Network).
“I’m not caught up in Cinderella,” LSU coach Trent Johnson deadpanned when asked about the daunting challenge of knocking off a Wildcats team expected to be a serious contender for the national championship starting next week. “I just know the challenge for us is huge. We have to play well, and they have to help us by not playing as well as they have been playing. But Cinderella and all that kind of stuff, I'm not caught up in all of that.
“You control your own destiny with how well you play.”
The Tigers (18-13) made sure their destiny will last one more day at the SEC Tournament by playing a complete second half with contributions coming from all corners.
How wide-ranging was LSU’s performance? The Tigers shot 50% from the floor (25-for-50), ramped that up to 55.6% in the second half (15-of-27), buried 6-of-12 3-pointers, out-rebounded the Razorbacks 41-28 and committed only five second-half turnovers after losing the ball 10 times in the initial 20 minutes.
Arkansas (18-14) produced several second-chance shots in a first half that ended in a 28-28 tie with 10 offensive rebounds. After the break, the Hogs got one offensive carom.
|Senior forward Storm Warren was part of the Tigers' dominant inside presence with 14 points and 7 rebounds|
Five LSU players scored in double digits, led by freshman Johnny O’Bryant, who was dominant inside with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Storm Warren scored 14 and snared 7 boards and Justin Hamilton rounded out a three-pronged frontcourt committee with 10 points and 7 rebounds. Those three combined for 27 of LSU’s 42 second-half points.
The backcourt had plenty to contribute as well. Ralston Turner (10 points, season-high 8 rebounds, season-high 4 assists) and Andre Stringer (11 points, 3-4 3-point FG, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) turned in as well-rounded performances as they have all season. And Anthony Hickey dished out 7 assists and keyed a suffocating defensive effort that limited Razorbacks’ sharpshooters Mardracus Wade and B.J. Young to four second-half field-goal attempts between them and 14 points over the final 20 minutes.
“We came out in the second half and I thought played pretty good basketball,” Johnson said.
The turnaround began well before then, though.
After a wobbly beginning when the Razorbacks held an 8-4 lead despite struggling to find shots against the LSU defense – a theme all day long – the Tigers found their offensive rhythm.
Turner hit a jumper from the left wing just inside the arc. O’Bryant hit 1-of-2 free throws to begin a busy day at the stripe (10-of-17) and knot the score 8-8. Hickey pumped in a 3-pointer for LSU’s first lead at the 12:10 juncture and Stringer took a pass from Hickey and buried another trey 17 seconds later.
The rest of the half was frenetic back-and-forth, with Arkansas regaining the advantage when Wade found open space for a 3 off the dribble. But the Tigers clawed back with Warren scoring four points inside and Warren’s free throw to even the score.
Stringer cranked in a 3-pointer on LSU’s second possession of the second half to ignite a 10-2 run the Tigers never trailed again.
Two keys emerged early in the second half: LSU’s reduction in turnovers against Arkansas’ full-court, smell-your-gum-flavor press and lock-down interior defense that forced the Hogs to fire away from the perimeter.
That was a bad recipe for the Razorbacks as they shot only 35% in the second half (7 of 20) and missed all six treys they hoisted.
Arkansas’s big men managed only 12 points all day and no second-chance points after halftime.
“We put emphasis on not giving up the middle, because that's the way our defense works,” said Warren, who blocked 3 shots. “And we pretty much just kept our hands to ourselves, stayed in position and gave them one look and one opportunity.”
With defense setting the tone, the Tigers started picking Arkansas apart offensively with the most balanced attack they’ve had all season.
Every possession included at least one post touch for Hamilton, O’Bryant or both, and they took turns scoring four straight points after the opening salvo in the second half. With the Hogs forced to sag inside on those two, Turner jacked in a 3 at the 10:10 mark that gave LSU its first double-digit lead, 49-39.
|Anthony Hickey keyed a stingy defensive effort by the LSU guards|
While Arkansas’ shooting touch faltering with five straight misses and one-and-down possessions, O’Bryant took over and scored six points in 1:49 span – sparked by two offensive rebounds and stickbacks.
“Playing inside out – that's what our offense is based on,” Hickey said. “I tried get my bigs going because it opened it up for the perimeters and they were able to knock down shots.”
The unquestioned offensive star this day was O’Bryant, the McDonald’s All-American who has teased LSU fans with flashes of brilliance and inconsistency all season.
Nearly every time the 6-foot-9, 262-pound man-child touched the ball, he drove with purpose and Arkansas had no answer.
“It was definitely great game for me,” O’Bryant said. “Second half, I just tried to stay with it and continue to knock down free throws and take it to them. So it was definitely great game for me.”
No argument from Razorbacks’ coach Mike Anderson.
Arkansas lost a first-round SEC Tournament game for the fourth year in a row, the first under Anderson, and he saw this one as LSU taking it away from the Hogs.
|Mike Anderson: 'They got physical out there, and I thought they just kind of took the fight to our guys.'|
“I thought the whole team did a good job of attacking the glass in the second half,” Anderson said. “They got physical out there, and I thought they just kind of took the fight to our guys.”
Whatever fight was left dried up when Arkansas couldn’t hit a shot from the floor. The Razorbacks went 4:09 without a make in one second-half drought and then endured 5:22 later before Julysses Nobles stuck a jumper from the wing with 2:06 to go, which trimmed the deficit to 66-53.
That inability to make shots kept Arkansas from setting up in its press as much as normal and the Tigers made the Hogs pay when they did try to rattle them with a 10-0 advantage in fast-break points.
Early on LSU wilted under Arkansas’ pressure, but after the herky-jerky beginning, the Tigers were the aggressor.
“We didn't do a very good job of handling the pressure,” Johnson said of the early stretch of six giveaways in the first 6 minutes. “But to (LSU’s) credit, they regrouped and made some adjustments and did a very good job of taking care of the ball and we established a post presence, which I thought was huge. And we made good decisions on the perimeter.”
All of that, along with the stingy defense, added up to a complete effort and at least one more day in the SEC Tournament.
Thursday’s win might very well have solidified an NIT berth, but that can wait for now with a chance to knock off Goliath. Kentucky drummed LSU 74-50 in January, the Tigers’ worst home loss of a season when they were tough to beat at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“We got the No. 1 team … and it's in our backyard this time,” said Hickey, a Kentucky native. “We're going to execute more, adjust to what we messed up on the last game, and it's going to be another great game.”