Some say that it’s a good thing that LSU lost before it hits the post-season because it keeps the players from getting too confident and keeps them hungry. But for that loss to happen on Senior Night when five Tigers – Marcus Thornton, Garrett Temple, Chris Johnson, Terry Martin and Quintin Thornton, would play their final home game at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, well, that’s was not the script that many had drawn up.
“It’s a little tougher to put this behind us because we’re not used to losing,” said senior guard Garrett Temple. “It was real tough to cope with that loss especially with this being my last home game. We got so used to winning and we were talking about it in the locker room about how it was a wakeup call for us and we might have needed that.”
The Tigers (25-5, 13-2) have had plenty of close calls in this 2008-09 campaign. They were in danger of dropping several games down the stretch but somehow managed to prevail in each one.
There was the double overtime win at Mississippi State where the Tigers were basically down to their last man on the bench due to foul trouble. That was sandwiched in between an Arkansas game, where LSU was down by 17 in the first half and trailed by seven with five minutes remaining, and the Ole Miss contest, where LSU had to outscore the Rebels 19-4 in the final seven minutes for a 73-66 victory.
More recently, there was the classic win at Rupp Arena, a place the Tigers had not won at in 20 years. LSU overcame a 10-point deficit with 11 minutes left to play and left Kentucky with a 76-73 victory.
There were plenty of instances where the Tigers could have folded in one of those previous contests, but this team stood tall and overcame adversity time and time again.
“Maybe it’s the seniors or the veterans that we have on this team with wanting to get to the NCAA tournament and understanding that when people say the SEC is down we really need to run away with it so people will say we’re a good tournament team,” Temple said.
“Just the poise that we have that coach Johnson has instilled in us and us trusting each other and what coach has told us to do has been a real big part of us coming out with all of those victories.”
Now, the task for LSU is to regroup and get ready to play at Auburn on Saturday in the regular season finale. This team hasn’t had to deal with losing often in this campaign, but the tough times it endured over the last two years has taught the players how to turn the page to the next opponent.
“I think we got it (Vanderbilt) out of our system,” said Temple. “We talked about it today and like coach said, it’s over. Auburn is a one game season and we’re trying to get some momentum going into the SEC tournament. They’re playing real well and we don’t have any reason to not be up for them.”
Playing at Auburn (20-10, 9-6) will be a tough chore for LSU as the Tigers from the Plains are one of the hottest teams in the country, winners of seven of their last eight. The only loss during that span was to LSU on Feb. 21 and that game was still in doubt with two minutes remaining and LSU clinging to a three point lead.
Add in that many consider Auburn to be on the bubble for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament and you have a hungry team with revenge on its mind.
“We beat them here so they’re going to try and beat us at their house,” said senior guard Marcus Thornton. “We have to come in with the mentality of defense first and everything else will take care of itself. Like coach said, we have to get back to the basics in practice with defending and rebounding and doing all of the little things we need to do to win.”
Auburn’s four guard offense will stretch LSU's defense with its perimeter shooting and making it even more difficult for LSU is the inside presence of Korvotney Barber, who is the only SEC player to average a double-double in conference play with 12.6 points and 10.9 boards a game.
“I think they’re really skilled and one of the top teams in this league,” said Johnson. “Their perimeter players don’t get enough credit and I think they’re underrated.”
After the Auburn contest, LSU will have five days before its next game on Friday in the SEC tournament.
Having some extra time to get their legs back will be good for the Tigers and it’s something that is much needed at this point in the season.
“We’re going to have to in our preparation take a little bit back on the offensive end and solely concentrate on the defensive end (Friday),” Johnson said. “We’re going to go lay it on the line on Saturday then come back and get a good two days off then be ready to go with three hard days of practice before we go."