After LSU head coach Trent Johnson walked out of the locker room following his team’s 65-54 win over Arkansas on Wednesday evening, his words told the tale of the slide that the team has experienced over the past two months.
“It’s been a long time, and I forgot how it felt,” Johnson said jokingly - something you won’t find the Tiger head coach doing much of these days - of his team’s first conference win in their last 15 outings, a streak dating back to the final two regular season games of 2009.
As the saying goes, it’s been a long time coming.
With the season closing in on LSU, and no postseason action in sight, fans began to wonder if their Tigers – one year removed from an SEC crown – would fall winless in conference play, something that hasn’t been done in over 50 years.
For those that have followed the Tigers along their windy path in 2010, perhaps there was a sense that a win was brewing.
Two games ago, LSU dropped a late decision at Vanderbilt. Johnson called the loss the strongest performance from start to finish that his team had put together up to that point.
Then came the heartbreaker, a one-point loss in the PMAC to Mississippi State. There was Tasmin Mitchell’s three-pointer in the closing minute, which was quickly followed with a three-point bucket from the Bulldogs. Mitchell’s final heave was a contested one that came from midcourt at the buzzer, and left the Tigers – down one – calling for a foul.
Still, Johnson and his team remained winless.
Wednesday night against Arkansas, a team that downed LSU by 35 points just three games ago, the Tigers put all of the wonder to rest.
In front of the home crowd, the Tigers jumped out to a 12-0 lead. From there, LSU kept Arkansas out of reach down to the final whistle.
“Arkansas obviously really handled us physically at their place, so I knew we were going to be ready to play,” Johnson said. “It was just a matter of us executing. I thought we did a really good job, probably the best job we’ve done all year at getting out to the shooters in the zone, and it sort of got them out of rhythm.”
The 2-3 zone, which Johnson went with from start to finish, puzzled the Razorbacks on the perimeter – which resulted in 21 turnovers that led to 28 points for the Tigers.
“Getting to shooters, proper closeouts, things that are just repetition over and over again, with a young and inexperienced team is just a matter of time before they figure it out,” Johnson said.
“I think a guy that was really effective for us tonight - and I said this a couple of weeks ago - was Daron Populist,” he added. “He remains under control. He remains poised and does an excellent job for us on scout team. We're a lot better in the zone, and I think a lot of that has to do with our intensity and maximum effort.”
With 3:35 to play in the first half, the Tigers held a 27-15 lead, going 10-of-23 from the field and 4-of-7 from behind the arc. With the zone in full effect and the shots finally falling, LSU looked good for the first time in a long time.
At half, LSU was up 33-18. Though the Tigers saw a bit of sloppy guard play to begin the second, a 14-point advantage with 15 minutes to play had LSU still running on cruise control.
“I felt that at the end of the first half we were going to win,” Mitchell said. “We came out with a good lead. I knew we couldn't let that lead get away from us.”
Mitchell made a free throw at the 13:44 mark that tied him with Shaquille O'Neal for fourth in career scoring. His second free throw of the possession gave him 1,942 career points, tying for third all-time with Howard Carter.
“I'm so thankful for the achievement, but we have to continue to win,” said Mitchell, a Denham Springs native. “It feels good to be up there with the greats like the Pistol [Pete Maravich] and Rudy [Macklin]. We need to keep winning games and stay poised, and I'll worry about that scoring thing after.”
While Mitchell had a team-high 16 points, the true tale of the scorecard was how spread out the Tigers’ scoring was. Eight LSU players recorded points, seven of which went for over six points.
Bo Spencer scored 10 points, Zach Kinsley recorded nine, Storm Warren and Populist went for eight and Dennis Harris and Garrett Green both scored six. Eddie Ludwig, who logged five minutes, went 2-of-2 from the charity stripe, where he is shooting at over 90-percent on the season.
“I thought LSU got some very good play out of some guys,” said Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey. “Populist had an impact on the game, Harris had an impact on the game and Kinsley had an impact on the game.
“Certainly Mitchell and Warren and Spencer did what they do,” he added. “To win this league, you have to have some guys come in and step up off the bench, and they had that tonight.”
Arkansas made a pair of final runs, the latter of which cut the lead to 58-47 with 1:22 to play. However, free throws and missed shots by the Razorbacks handed the Tigers the 65-54 win, their first since Jan. 4 against McNeese State.
LSU will go through a light shoot around and video session on Thursday before they head to Auburn on Friday afternoon for Saturday’s 6 p.m. contest at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Auburn edged out LSU 84-80 in their last meeting.