Tigers looking to finish strong
Upcoming stretch of three games in six days could determine LSU’s postseason fate
Basketball is a game of finishing.
Whether it’s by way of a layup at the rim through traffic, or an uncontested three-point shot, getting a shot off isn’t good enough.
You have to make it.
Macrocosmically speaking, LSU’s 2012-13 basketball season is no different.
The shot has arrived. Now, the Tigers must finish.
Sitting solidly at 13-8 overall and 4-6 in the SEC, LSU enters its final eight games of the conference season — three of which will be played in the next six days — needing to finish strong in order to make a postseason run.
That the Tigers are here at all, with a makeable shot at postseason play, is by itself remarkable, especially in light of LSU’s 0-4 start to SEC play, which included losses to beatable opponents in Auburn, South Carolina, and Georgia.
But dogged determination — and some timely stellar play from Anthony Hickey and Johnny O’Bryant — has put LSU within striking distance of at least an NIT Tournament berth, as the Tigers have won four of six. Of those six games, all have been within a five-point margin, meaning LSU is learning to live on the edge.
Johnny Jones, for his part, calls it standard procedure.
“I’m just a firm believer that most times games are going to come down to the last two or three minutes of the ball game,” Jones said at Tuesday’s media session.
Early in the SEC schedule, LSU hadn’t yet figured out how to close out games. An overtime loss to South Carolina on Jan. 16 serves as best evidence, as the Tigers failed to make the necessary plays on either end of the floor and couldn’t protect a late lead in regulation. The Gamecocks would go on to pull away in overtime, to the tune of an 82-73 win.
“Competing or executing at a high level and making big time plays at the end, in those last two minutes of the game, I think is huge,” Jones said. “Not just offensively, but defensively. We lost some games because we gave up some tough rebounds, we were out rebounded, or out toughed at times and gave up some tough offensive rebounds on the other end of the floor allowing teams to keep alive an additional possession. South Carolina was one of those. I thought late in the game we had a chance to get some big rebounds. We didn’t, and they got put backs or fouls stopping the clock. I think that’s how they got back in the game after we were up about four with two minutes to play, instead of closing them out.”
But that loss sparked LSU to win four of its next six, including a home upset of No. 17 Missouri. All of those games were tightly contested down the stretch. For the most part, the Tigers learned from their early failures to seal the deal in four — and give themselves a chance after falling behind in the two losses.
“Since [the South Carolina loss], I think our team has made more of a conscious effort of trying to execute at a higher level,” said Jones. “We’ve gotten good shots at the ends of games, including the Alabama game, getting two really good looks through execution right there at the end. Hickey and Stringer’s shots didn’t go down, but at least we got the looks that we needed.”
A shot at revenge vs. South Carolina looms on Thursday in Columbia, kicking off the three-games-in-six-days stretch. The Tigers return home Saturday for a clash with Mississippi State — themselves seeking vengeance for a 69-68 loss to the Tigers in Starkville — before a Tuesday fare vs. a highly-talented Tennessee team with a habit for making late-season tournament runs. Jones knows how LSU manages fatigue through this critical juncture will be key to their March plans.
“They’re young enough. They should be able to do it,” Jones said of the six-day stretch. “You look at guys like Tim Duncan and how they run night in and night out. I think your guys are young enough to be able to do that and old enough to accept that type of responsibility. You should be able to welcome it, and I think good teams do. You can point to the top teams there are out there in the country. They’re not looking for any excuses in being hurt or banged up or anything. I think anytime you line up and you’re playing any sport, you’re going to be banged up if you’re playing hard and giving the certain type of effort. Tough teams are able to play through it.”
Tough teams are also able to play through stretches of poor shooting, something that has plagued LSU in conference play. The Tigers are hiting just 38% from the floor and 30% from three in conference play, but Jones’ message is simple: keep shooting.
“Offensively we’re getting shots and decent looks at the basket, but we’ve got to do a better job of making shots,” he said. “We haven’t shot the ball as well as we’d liked to in conference play.
“I try not to harp too much on or tell someone not to shoot,” he added. “I just want to make sure they’re shooting from their areas. The big thing is trying to get our higher percentage shot early on, and then we can work our way into shooting that three point shot or something that’s a little bit later in the clock. I think that’s helped us, and I think they’re a little bit more conscious of that.”
Hopefully for LSU’s sake, those shots will start falling soon, because the clock’s winding down in the 2012-13 season. The good news, however, is that LSU has executed well enough to get a good look at postseason play. The shot they want is there for the taking. Whether or not they make it remains to be seen.
But be assured: win or lose, they will go down shooting.