Inconsistent teams take one step forward, one step back and struggle to find that right formula.
LSU is a team that would love to climb to a spot where it can be pegged as inconsistent. Because right now, the Tigers are just bad and careening toward unfamiliar depths.
Against Mississippi State on Saturday, LSU took a huge step backward in a 95-78 loss that wasn’t nearly as close as that lopsided final count indicates.
What makes the loss – the Tigers’ second in three SEC games – even tougher to digest is that the Bulldogs smacked LSU around in two areas where pride have to be a major factor: Rebounds and points off turnovers.
To give credit where it’s due, State (10-4, 1-1 SEC) deserves a ton of kudos for delivering a masterful performance on the road to seize on the Tigers’ struggles.
The Bulldogs shot 54.1% overall, buried 11-of-22 from outside the 3-point arc and consistently beat the Tigers at their own game on the way to a 14-2 edge on fast-break points. Five MSU players scored in double digits to anchor a balanced attack, led by Aric Holman’s 17 points.
As much as the Bulldogs did right, though, LSU matched them with poor execution and worse, a lack of energy for long stretches.
How bad were things? So bad that the normally eternally positive Johnny Jones more or less vowed there would be changes
“We can’t settle for where we are and hope,” Jones said after LSU allowed 95 points for the second home game in a row, both losses. The Tigers are giving up an eye-popping 89 points a game in three games against league foes, two that came in in the lower tier of the SEC offensive stats.
“We’ve got to make changes, do things we weren’t planning on doing.”
Saturday certainly go as planned.
LSU (9-5, 1-2) was up 20-19 in a back-and-forth first half when backup guard Branden Jenkins buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the 9:51 juncture. That was the eighth lead change of the game and the Tigers seemed to be in good shape.
Holman hit two foul shots to put State back up, 21-2, and things went badly awry for the Tigers after that. Over the final 8:10 of the first half, the Bulldogs caught fire and LSU crumbled.
State knocked down 13 of its final 18 field goals, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range, and scored on 13 of the last 16 offensive trips to storm to a 52-33 halftime lead.
The Tigers endured two lengthy droughts as the Bulldogs made hay – 3:57 after Jenkins’ trey and 4:05 when Jalyn Patterson banked in a desperate 3 to end a 4:05 dry spell. In those two stretches, LSU was a combined 0-for-9 with five turnovers.
“We have to take care of the ball, run the offense more efficiently, get better shots,” freshman guard Skylar Mays said.
As big a culprit as the Tigers’ offensive malaise was, though, it was again defense that caused the biggest headaches for LSU with first-half struggles on the backboards a close second.
The Bulldogs’ numbers noted above had plenty to do with their strong performance, but they also got plenty of open looks and converted LSU giveaways into one transition bucket after another.
A bunch of those came when LSU shot and missed and State snared the rebound. The Tigers corralled only six offensive rebounds in the first half for five second-chance points.A glaring stat at halftime was the 13-0 edge the Bulldogs possessed on points off turnovers, most of that during the disastrous unraveling to close the period.
"It's a toughness and desire. We're making the initial plays, but we're not backing it up."
As a result, the Tigers are regressing.
The State lead swelled to 71-45 with 10:12 to go before Jones angrily started moving players in and out to find the right combination. He finally found it with a four-guard crew that outscored the Bulldogs 30-24 in the last portion of the game with six 3-pointers and 12-of-19 (63.2%) shooting.
Could that be where the changes are coming – to a smaller lineup?
“We have to make some corrections, identify those problems and make sure that we are getting better,” Jones said. “We have to make sure that we do that quickly.”
Hand-in-hand with that is for LSU to discover a formula for a quicker start instead of meandering through the first half and trying to zoom back into the game.
That tact worked in a handful of non-conference games and against woeful Missouri. Sticking to that path could be problematic the rest of the SEC season.
“We have to find a way to come out with better intensity so that we are not starting slow,” Mays said. “We have been a second half team this year, but we are trying to find ways to become a first and second half team.”
Added Antonio Blakeney, “When we get behind, everyone is trying hard to fight back, maybe when we get the ball or even on defense. They are trying to do whatever they think it takes to win, which is fine, but we shouldn’t be putting ourselves in the situation to be down like that all of the time.”
Reath led LSU with 19 points and 13 boards, while Blakeney rallied to score 17 after a quiet first half. Mays was solid with 10 points and 5 assists.
The Tigers return to action Wednesday when they play similarly struggling Texas A&M (8-6, 0-3) at 7:30 p.m. The Aggies fell to South Carolina on Saturday, 79-68, and are off to their worst SEC start since joining the league five years ago.
BOX SCORE | Mississippi State 95, LSU 78