The final line in both games reads a loss for LSU.
At Vanderbilt on Feb. 13th, the Commodores took a 77-69 decision. In the Pete Maravich Assembly Center against Mississippi State last Saturday, the Bulldogs won a 60-59 game that was decided in the final seconds.
The two sides have a combined 17 Southeastern Conference wins, and through that point LSU hadn’t been able to manage one.
When Wednesday rolled around, things changed.
According to the players, there was a different feel in the locker room, one that hadn’t been there in games passed. As Storm Warren put it, the team could feel that “something was brewing.”
“When we came into the locker room, we just felt it,” Warren said. “It was right before the game, and nothing was said. We knew that we had to go out and take that game. That was it.”
Before you could bat an eye, the Tigers had jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Arkansas. By halftime, LSU led 33-18.
Head coach Trent Johnson’s side, for the first time in two months, was in charge. While the Razorbacks tested the Tigers with a couple of second half runs, the lead was never threatened.
After 40 minutes of good basketball for the third game in a row, LSU earned their first SEC win of the season.
“I forgot what if felt like,” said Bo Spencer. “It was great, and I was really happy for the team. Everyone helped in this one.”
Spencer, who averages 14.5 points per game, was held to 10 points on a quiet night from the floor. Yet, other shooters stepped forward in numbers – something that hasn’t happened for LSU this season.
“They kept me from getting open looks, so I let my teammates take over,” Spencer said. “Daron stepped up, and Tasmin stepped up as normal. It was a total team effort, especially scoring the ball.”
Tasmin Mitchell went for 16 points, Zach Kinsley recorded nine, Warren and Populist went for eight and Dennis Harris and Garrett Green both scored six. Eddie Ludwig, who logged five minutes, hit both of his free throw attempts.
Further credit to what this lineup was able to do, one should note that both Kinsley and Populist are walk on guards, while Harris and Greene are coming off injuries that kept them from practicing for an extended period of time.
“It revolves around playing more,” said Johnson. “Populist has done a good job of knocking down shots, and Dennis has strung together some good games offensively. You have to think, Green and Harris haven’t played basketball in a couple years. Populist was playing in Slidell last season.
“You can look at all the wins and then losses, but they are getting better,” he added. “They are trying to improve day-to-day. The wins will take care of themselves.”
While a team scoring effort lifted the Tigers offensively, it was the 2-3 zone – which Johnson elected to go with from start to finish – that kept Arkansas at bay on the offensive end of the floor. The Razorbacks failed to shoot 50-percent in either half, something the Tigers haven’t stopped a team from doing in nine games.
“I thought we did a decent job of really getting to shooters,” Johnson said. “[Arkansas] sometimes made bad decisions, but we kept people in front of us.”
For much of the season the Tigers took a make-miss approach, where they rotated man and zone defenses based upon the opponent’s shot result. Lately, the zone has players like Populist confident that the Tigers should stick with one set for 40 minutes.
“The zone takes care of us in certain spots, and as long as we get to those spots then we can stop them from driving,” he said. “We are able to get hands in their face, and it also helps with catching your breath to get back on offense. Right now, we are happy with it.”
Turning to Saturday’s contest on the road against Auburn, Spencer is thinking about not just redemption from the 84-80 loss to the War Eagles at the PMAC, but also building onto any sort of late-season momentum that LSU can muster.
“You have that feeling where you want to get as many as you can,” Spencer said. “We want to roll off three in a row and get to the SEC tournament and see what happens from there.”