COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A strip of paper reserved a spot for Rudy Davalos in the second row on the aisle next to the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band on Wednesday.
The National Invitation Tournament selection committee member’s vantage point was optimal for a bubble tilt between Texas A&M and LSU.
Pity, because Davalos never showed.
Yet the Tigers’ 68-57 victory laid out a case for inclusion and avoided the same plight they faced against Missouri, holding on to a 14-point lead after the Aggies cut the score to a lone 3-pointer and improving LSU’s seeding prospects in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
“We knew were tied with some teams in this conference,” small forward Shavon Coleman said. “We knew we had to win this game.”
Starting the week, the Tigers (18-10, 9-8 SEC) faced a plethora of scenarios that could leave them sitting as a No. 6 seed or falling all the way to No. 11 easily out of NIT contention in front of 6,540 fans on Senior Night.
But after Wednesday, the Tigers sit in a tie with Arkansas for seventh place, and temporarily own the No. 7 seed with a head-to-head win a week ago in Baton Rouge.
“We don’t fear any team going into the tournament,” guard Andre Stringer said. “Obviously, we want to take care of our business and end our season right.”
Reaching the objective, though, required speeding up the plodding Aggies (17-13, 7-10 SEC), who dictated the first half pace and only trailed 27-25 trotting up the tunnel.
Knotted at 31-31, forward Johnny O’Bryant III, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds, knocked down a fall-away jumper over Kourtney Roberson with 17:55 left a 17-4 run to build a 49-35 lead.
Two possessions later, guard Charles Carmouche, who had 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, hit a 3-pointer on the left wing and extended the lead to 38-33.
And helter skelter reigned for the next two minutes after LSU rolled out its press — a decision dictated more by the Tigers thin seven-man rotation than tempo.
“We’re just not very deep in terms of our bench, and have to be very selective when we choose to press,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We thought the game was close enough that we didn’t have to early on.”
While the switch produced no points and three quick turnovers, LSU, which converted 18 takeaways into 14 points, shook the Aggies rhythm before an Andre Stringer 3-pointer at 12:20 made it 45-35.
Keying the pressure, Shavon Coleman, who scored all eight of his points after halftime, forced one of his three steals when he stripped Fabyon Harris and hit two free throws after Alex Caruso fouled him transition at 11:53.
“I like anything that coach calls,” Coleman said. “If coach calls (the press), we’re going to get in it. We get a lot of deflections when we run that.”
By now, the injection of energy offered up by Coleman, whose gangly arms and length at 6-5 help generate deflections, is his prime asset.
“Me and Anthony take a lot of credit for those steals,” he said. “But most of the time, it’s Shavon getting those deflections and us doing the dirty work.”
Lifting the malaise was critical after a first half where O’Bryant missed all five of his shots and scored just two points on a pair of free throws.
On the wing, guard Anthony Hickey, who scored just three points on 1-of-4 shooting, didn’t hoist a shot until his 3-pointer with 1:59 left until halftime made it a 25-20 LSU lead.
Equally disconcerting was LSU’s stalled transition game, which didn’t generate a true fastbreak chance until 10 minutes into the game only to see Coleman throw the ball out of bounds near the LSU bench.
“This is a game of runs,” Carmouche said. “We just stayed level-headed this game. We played at a good pace, and in the first half we were playing too slow.”
Yet the Tigers stopped the stalling for a two-minute stretch to piece together a 7-2 spurt, starting with Carmouche splitting a pair of free throws with 6:18 and ending with his jumper for a 22-18 lead with 3:30 to go in the half en route to a 27-25 lead the break.
After LSU built a 14-point buffer, the Aggies, clawing to get out of the No. 11 seed and possibly playing five games in five days next week, narrowed the gap.
Forward Ray Turner, who notched a team-high 16 points, put back his own miss at 10:36, and guard Fabyon Harris nailed back-to-back 3-pointers on the right wing to draw the Aggies to 49-43 with 9:27 remaining.
Two minutes later, Harris, who scored all of his 12 points after halftime, hit a floater in the lane to make it a 52-49 gap in front of the Aggies.
They never winnowed the lead below three, though.
Andrew Del Piero lofted in a right-handed hook shot over Andrew Young for a 56-51 lead and 6:09 left to go.
Meanwhile, a nicked up Elston Turner, who averages 18.0 points but was limited to just 11, watched back-to-back 3-point attempts thump off the back iron on the ensuing trip. The senior went down and writhed in pain with a wrist injury near the free-throw line after an Anthony Hickey steal and dish to Coleman lay-up with 8:32 left in the second half.
“I couldn’t catch the ball,” Turner said. “Everything I did was with my right hand. I couldn’t function with my left hand.”
There was also the matter of a nagging pain in his knee, too.
“He was limping and complaining about his knee,” Carmouche said. “We saw had an opportunity.”
Carmouche notched his fourth-consecutive 20-point game. Over the final three minutes, he reeled off six straight points, including a floater with 1:23 left for a 66-53 lead
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