Trotting alone in the open floor, LSU guard Anthony Hickey corralled Charles Carmouche’s outlet pass for a layup during a six-point spurt in the waning minutes that served as cosmetic work in a 79-63 victory Saturday against Bethune-Cookman.
Thirty seconds earlier, Carmouche had lifted off from the Pete Maravich Assembly Center floor for a two-handed dunk after swiping a steal near halfcourt, and Hickey followed with his own steal-and-score sequence after the Tigers struggled to expand their lead beyond 15 points after halftime.
Bethune-Cookman (5-10), a middling squad from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, couldn’t prune the deficit to fewer than eight points.
“You spend so much energy fighting back that eventually it wears you down,” Bethune-Cookman coach Gravelle Craig said.
But LSU (9-2) never quite snuffed the Wildcats’ hopes after building a 21-point first-half lead, then frittering it away with turnovers and cheap fouls that let Bethune-Cookman close within 38-30 at halftime.
“We didn’t keep our foot on the pedal,” Stringer said. “We got a little careless, and they got their hands on the ball and started pressing.”
It left LSU coach Johnny Jones offering a blunt assessment of the Tigers ahead of their Southeastern Conference opener Wednesday at Auburn.
“We’ve got a lot of room for growth,” he said. “No, we’re not clicking on all cylinders. I would like for us to be, but I’m hopeful no other team in the league is.”
The listlessness sullied an otherwise solid outing.
Bethune-Cookman shot just 36.8 percent. LSU, which shot 52.6 percent, had a 40-26 edge in the paint and got 29 points from its bench, paced by 14 from Hickey in his return from suspension.
LSU’s starting lineup provided balanced scoring. Carmouche had a team-high 17 points, and Shavon Coleman added 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Yet the Tigers needed a 9-2 run to rebuild a 53-38 lead with 12:25 to play. The surge also revealed insight into a backcourt rotation that might prove most productive for the Tigers.
With Hickey back in uniform, Stringer, who is LSU’s best 3-point threat, is no longer tasked with being the primary ballhandler. That allowed him to move back to the off-guard with Carmouche.
“When those guys are out there playing together, and they’re on and they can force teams into rotations, all three guys can hit the deep ball,” Jones said. “All three can get to the rim, and they can stretch the defense.”
The trio’s presence over four minutes in the first half keyed a 12-4 run — it started 12 seconds after Hickey checked in, when he scored on a fast break at 15:23 — that yielded a 21-6 lead with 10:40 left until halftime.
At 12:59, Carmouche hit a 3-pointer, then on the ensuing possession he pitched an underhanded kickout from the right block to Hickey in the corner for another 3. Capping the sequence, Carmouche came up the floor, crossed over a defender and breezed down the lane for a 19-4 lead at 11:50.
That left their fellow Tigers voicing Hickey, Carmouche and Stringer as LSU’s prime backcourt pieces.
“They’re more comfortable dribbling the ball around when the pressure is up against us,” said forward Andrew Del Piero, who had a career-high 10 points. “They have more experience, had to face that pressure more than some other guys.”
But if Hickey’s return proved a catalyst, an effort to bring along forward Johnny O’Bryant from a nagging foot injury was the sliver for Bethune-Cookman to exploit.
O’Bryant, who averages 13.3 points and 8.5 rebounds but sat out against Houston Baptist in LSU’s previous game, checked in with four minutes left in the first half, and the Tigers promptly began dumping the ball to him on the left block.
But O’Bryant had sat out a week of practice and lacked the explosiveness necessary to get off the floor. He finished 1 of 3 for two points in five minutes. Worse, the concerted effort to involve O’Bryant stymied the Tigers’ balance.
“Johnny getting back into the rotation and trying to force-feed things down there (in the lane),” Jones said, “we just weren’t as clean as we were before.”
The Wildcats, normally content slowing the pace, rolled out a full-court trap that flustered the Tigers — a move that forced five turnovers and limited LSU to 3-of-12 shooting to close the half.
Able to get into the open floor, Bethune-Cookman also forced its way to the free-throw line, knocking down 11 of 12 in the final five minutes of the half during an 18-6 run that cut its halftime deficit to eight points.
“We got caught with our hands on them,” Stringer said. “That’s something we normally don’t do and not something that’s going to help us in the future.”
Forward Adrien Coleman, limited to 1-of-5 shooting and six first-half points, finished with a game-high 24 for Bethune-Cookman. Forward Alex Smith added 10 points, 10 rebounds, seven blocks and six steals.
The outcome left Jones with a cautionary note ahead of SEC play.
“Now everything changes,” he said. “People are just better, and every night is going to be a dogfight.”