Experienced Panthers slips past LSU

LSU Basketball Coach John Brady compared Northern Iowa, his team's opponent Monday night in Baton Rouge, favorably to West Virginia several times throughout last week.

LSU beat then 13th-ranked West Virginia 71-68 in overtime Nov. 26. The Tigers did not, however, beat Northern Iowa Monday as the Panthers came to the Maravich Assembly Center and scrapped their way to a 54-50 win in the first round of the Las Vegas Classic. The tournament will continue in the city of its namesake this Thursday when the Tigers travel to Vegas to take on Arkansas-Monticello, then face another non-conference test against Cincinnati Friday. 


The loss dropped the Tigers' record to 6-2 while the Panthers improved to 8-1 and chalked up another NCAA Tournament resume' builder. An earlier win by Northern Iowa against then 12th-ranked Iowa at Iowa Dec. 6, added to Monday's victory, gives the Missouri Valley Conference representatives two wins against major conference teams projected to make this year's NCAA 64-team field.


Brady said his team suffered from a lack of experience and faced exactly what he expected. Northern Iowa returned four starters from last year's squad that advanced to the NCAA tournament and started four upper classmen against LSU, while LSU, at times with Glenn Davis and Darrell Mitchell resting, played five freshmen.


"I knew that was good team, they (Northern Iowa) proved it by who they've beaten and how they've played," Brady said. "I think basically you saw two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore against one senior, and some sophomores and freshmen."


LSU had grown accustomed to out-rebounding its often overmatched opponents, averaging 22 more per game than the likes of Southern, UL-Lafayette and UNO. But, Northern Iowa cut the LSU rebounding edge to one as the Tigers grabbed 31 and the Panthers gathered 30 despite having only one player see action who is taller than 6'-6."


The lone Panther big man was the 6'-8" Grant Stout, who mixed in perimeter jumpers and turn-arounds in the post to lead Northern Iowa with 18 points and nine rebounds. LSU was led by senior guard Darrell Mitchell who led all scorers with 22 points and single-handedly kept the Tigers close late despite missing three-of-four free throws in the last 10:00 of the contest.


Neither team led by more than four points until back-up guard John Little drilled a long three-pointer with 7:28 to play to give the Panthers a 45-38 lead. LSU whittled that lead down to two three times during the last 3:24 and had a chance to tie the score after Northern Iowa forward Eric Coleman threw an errant pass out of bounds near the Panther bench with 1:19 to play.


But, LSU handed the ball back without even getting a shot at the basket as Garrett Temple simply dropped a pass outside the three-point line on the right wing with 1:03 remaining. Players from both teams dove to the floor as Panther guard Ben Jacobsen and Davis wrestled for, and eventually tied up the ball. The possession arrow pointed towards Northern Iowa.


Panther Coach Greg McDermott called a 30-second timeout to set up a play for Erik Crawford, who rolled out of a screen and hit a long three-pointer with 43 seconds to play to effectively end LSU's chances of catching up. Mitchell launched and made a long three of his own on the other end with 16 seconds remaining, but it didn't faze Crawford who stepped to the free-throw line seconds later and calmly hit two shots to salt away the victory.


"I think we played excellent defense," Mitchell said. "But they executed their offense real well. I think that's the toughest team we're going to face execution wise the whole season."


Brady said Mitchell is struggling to carry the offensive load right now as the only Tiger player who can consistently shoot from the outside. Northern Iowa sagged off LSU's perimeter players all game while collapsing in the lane to double and triple team Davis and Tyrus Thomas.


Monday's game marked the return of Tiger point guard Tack Minor, who was forced to miss the first seven games because of an academic suspension. Minor played 12 minutes but did not score or record an assist. Brady said he was pleased with Minor's play considering he had only practiced with the team once before the game. The coach added he hoped Minor's return could open up some shots for Mitchell, who has been playing point guard in Minor's stead.


"I think maybe Darrell (Mitchell) could create some more shots if he moved around a little more," Brady said. "But I'm not unhappy with the number and kind of shots he's taking now. We just need to develop some consistency in our perimeter shooting."


LSU held a slim 27-26 lead at half after Tasmin Mitchell knocked down a 15-foot jumper with 10 seconds to play. The two teams played within an eyelash of each other, with LSU grabbing 16 rebounds and Northern Iowa grabbing 14, Northern Iowa shooting 45.8 percent from the floor and LSU shooting 44.8 and LSU making 1-3 free throws while Northern Iowa made 2-3.


The lone edge for LSU, aside from the one-point lead, was Northern Iowa's seven turnovers that lead to five Tiger points. LSU, which had been plagued by turnover- problems in most of its first seven games, managed to keep the give-aways to just four in the first half.


The Tigers trailed for most of the first 7:00 of the half, taking its first lead with 13:04 to play when Thomas threw down a thunderous dunk thanks to a pinpoint pass through the Northern Iowa defense by Temple. The two teams then traded baskets for what seemed like the rest of the half. Northern Iowa's largest lead was four points; LSU's two. The lead changed 15 times during the half and 22 times during the game.

LSU now faces what could be its toughest stretch of the season, playing Arkansas-Monticello and Cincinnati in Las Vegas before traveling to Ohio State on Dec. 31 and eventually top-5 ranked Connecticut Jan. 7.


"Going on the road is going to be awfully difficult," Brady said. "I'm familiar with Cincinnati and they are very physical, athletic and play awfully well. We've got to be able to make plays."

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