Exiting the cluster of bodies at the LSU bench, guard Andre Stringer strode to the free-throw line with the Tigers in an unusual with position with 13.9 seconds remaining against Texas A&M.
Protecting a three-point lead, the junior was a flip of the wrist away from stanching growing doldrums from a winless start in the Southeastern Conference.
Yet LSU spent the bulk of the evening shedding a ill-desired persona.
Blitzed early, the Tigers rallied from a 15-point first-half hole.
Unable to protect a narrow lead midway through the second-half, the Tigers mustered enough gumption to maintain contact.
Then, knotted in an ugly tie game with two minutes left, they flipped momentum when Shavon Coleman drove a crease along the baseline and banked in a floater to seize control.
Then Stringer’s late free throw cemented a 58-54 victory Wednesday in front of 7,064 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, sidestepping a fifth-consecutive loss and spoiling the return of Aggies coach Billy Kennedy to his native state.
“We did an excellent job closing the game out and finishing,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “That’s not something we’ve done the last few games.”
It’s unlikely the Tigers (10-6, 1-4) will wring their hands over the less-than-stellar details, such as shooting 38.1 percent and a putrid 5 of 23 behind the three-point line. Or allowing the Aggies a plus-6 rebound margin, fueling a 15-7 edge in second chance points.
If anything, LSU’s pressure defense, unveiled seven minutes into the first half, proved the greatest counterbalance in forcing a season-high the Aggies (12-6, 2-3) into a season-high 24 turnovers, including 19 steals.
“I’m really disappointed in how we gave them the ball and basically gave them the game,” Kennedy said. “They were quick at every loose ball in the second half and played with more effort and more urgency than we did.”
Instead, LSU’s attention can linger on Coleman, who paced the Tigers with 17 points on 8 of 16 points off the bench, floating his go-ahead shot over Aggies guard Alex Caruso for a 52-50 lead with 1:59 remaining in the game.
And his easy layup a trip later after a rejuvenated Johnny O’Bryant, who added 14 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, shoveled an assist across the lane to push the led to four points.
“Our offense is based on inside out,” LSU guard Anthony Hickey said.
“We’ve got to get these two going to get defenses to suck in on them and that leaves the wings open. They played their best game tonight.”
Eking out victory seemed remote, though, after the Aggies tore off a 19-5 salvo seven minutes into the first half, capping the burst with Caruso drilling a 3-pointer off the right wing with 12:34 left until halftime.
“They were very deliberate in terms of their style of play, making extra passes, getting open, knocking down shots,” Jones said. “The did a nice job getting of to a really good start.”
It was a span where LSU’s worst traits emerged, largely settling for jumpers in missing five of their first seven shots — four of which were 3-pointers — and committing four turnovers that were converted into seven points.
Not that it dented the Tigers’ resolve, Hickey said.
“We’ve got to stay together,” Hickey said. ‘The crowd was still into it. They weren’t dead on us. Everyone was still into the game.”
Calling on the press proved the best tweak, forcing the Aggies in seven turnovers the rest of the first half and robbing them off possessions and missing seven of their final 11 shots.
“It kind of lit a fire under us,” Jones said. “The press really changed the game for us.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers pared into the lead slowly over the next eight minutes, pulling within 25-17 after O’Bryant split a pair of free throws with 4:12 remaining in the first half.
After J’Mychal Reese missed the front end of a one-and-one, Hickey brought the ball upcourt and worked solo on the freshman, crossing him over to clear enough space for a fall-away jumper with 1.2 seconds left in the first half to send LSU up the tunnel down 28-27.
“He flattened out, and I was able to give him some moves up top,” said Hickey, who finished with 10 points and added a season-high 8 steals. “I was just trying to make a play for my team.”
Yet LSU seemingly whiffed on three chances out of the locker room to assert authority and take a lead in less than a minute.
Trailing 35-34 with 17:30 to go, guard Charles Carmouche watched his open 3-pointer from the left wing pop off the back rim. On the next trip, O’Bryant’s lay-up on a run-out thudded off the bottom of iron.
And, finally, Coleman missed a pull-up jumper from the left elbow with 16:42 to play.
The Aggies responded with Caruso 3-pointer from the right corner on kick-out from Elston Turner to stretch the lead back to four points.
Only O’Bryant scored on the low block to pare the lead back to two points, and freshman Malik Morgan put LSU in front 39-38 with a 3-pointer at the top of the key after Stringer drove the baseline and jumped on the right block for a pitch out with 14:54 to play.
As for the Aggies, they went cold for 5:33, missing five consecutive shots and committing a turnover when Reese was called for a charge with 13:07 left in the second half.
No where to be found was Elston Turner, the Aggies leading scorer at 16.1 points per game, who was limited to his second-lowest scoring game of the season at five points on 1 of 7 shooting.
“We extended the defense, which put him away from the basket,” Jones said. “When they got in halfcourt sets they didn’t have as much time on the shot clock.”
In the second half, Turner’s lone points came from the free throw line to draw the Aggies even 50-50 with 2:24 left — a testament to the persistence shadowing by Carmouche and Morgan.
The persistence bore dividends when Coleman took a feed in the right corner and drove past a closing turner, and took off from the right block for the go-ahead bucket.
“If they call for a pick, I’ll go and then roll out,” Coleman said. “If I have a mismatch on a big, I can take him to the basket.”
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