NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fifteen minutes before tip-off Thursday against Georgia, LSU spokesman Kent Lowe strode along press row to announce a change in LSU’s starting lineup in the second round of the SEC tournament.
Scratch out center Andrew Del Piero. Scrawl down swingman Shavon Coleman.
Since a trip to Alabama on Feb. 9, the 6-foot-5, 185-pound junior-college transfer’s role didn’t escape easy definition.
As a small forward converted to a power forward, Coleman usually trotted from the bench to serve as the lead body on LSU’s press, hinting the Tigers might try to speed up the Bulldogs early.
Instead, Coleman proved the Tigers’ offensive catalyst in a 68-63 victory, scoring 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting and, crucially, contesting a potential game-tying 3-pointer from guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 10.6 seconds left.
“Shavon, against this team, is extremely, extremely quick,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We were hoping that we could get some driving lanes, really get to the basket. Shavon allowed us to do that instead of starting our other two post players.”
The Thibodaux native picked the appropriate moments to assert control, too. In the opening three minutes, he buried back-to-back 3-pointers to help LSU an early eight-point lead. After halftime, he tallied 11 of LSU’s first 14 points, including a four-point play with 12:34 to go for a 53-39 lead.
And Coleman tweaked the plan, making 5 of 6 3-pointers despite entering as a 25-percent shooter from behind the arc.
“I just had the hot hand and the team kept coming to me,” he said. “When you got a hot (player) like that, you got to keep coming to him.”
The cliché is rote: Poor free-throw shooting over time can cost a team a victory.
On Thursday, LSU’s woeful performance at the line embodied the notion. The Tigers hit just 13 of 28 attempts, a futility led by forward Johnny O’Bryant going a putrid 6 of 17.
“We didn’t do a great job of knocking down free throws when we had those opportunities there in the second half,” Jones said.
LSU avoided detailing its plan to slow Caldwell-Pope this week, but deducing the strategy was easy: switching screens.
Instead of deploying guard Charles Carmouche solo, the Tigers switched their stopper with guard Andre Stringer. Meanwhile, Coleman and O’Bryant hedged out hard to close space and allow guards to recover.
It worked ably in the first half, when Caldwell-Pope went 3 of 7 for a mere seven points. Not so much in the second, when the SEC Player of the Year scored 25, keyed by going 12-of-14 at the free-throw line.
We know he was going to come out in the second half and play,” Coleman said. “We know he was going to come out shooting the ball, playing aggressive.”
Caldwell-Pope, who finished with a career-high 32 points, scored 13 in the first 6:38 of the second half, including eight in a row to pull the Bulldogs within 49-36 with 13:22 left.
“I tried to stay attached to him as much as possible,” Stringer said. “I tried my best to contest those, but he’s a great player.”
In early January, LSU was mired in an 0-4 SEC start, one when Florida inflicted the worst loss Jan. 9 during a 74-52 loss at the PMAC.
Now, the Tigers get the top-seeded Gators (24-6) at noon Friday at Bridgestone Arena. Obviously, LSU fancies itself a different outfit now.
“The last time we played was very early,” O’Bryant said. “We were still trying to find out who we were as a team. We’ve done a lot better since then. I’ve gotten a lot better since then.”
The last point might be the most crucial. In the first meeting, O’Bryant, a first-team All-SEC pick, was recovering from a calf strain and high ankle sprain. Hurting and mired in foul trouble, the sophomore played just 14 minutes and scored just two points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Now, both sides are at full strength, with Florida having guards Michael Frazier II and Mike Rosario along with forwards Erik Murphy and Will Yeguete healed from a spate of injuries.
“We’re a better basketball team than the first time that we played them,” Jones said. “As well as Florida played, I think they’ve continued to improve as well. So I think it would be a great challenge for us.”
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