Three weeks ago, the notion of LSU fending off a foe and protecting a lead might have appeared foolhardy.
Not so much after Wednesday.
After building a 13-point halftime lead, the Tigers thwarted Vanderbilt’s bids early and late in the second half to secure a 57-56 victory in front of 7,075 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Oddly, too, the better indicator might be the Tigers’ seeming apathy after notching a third consecutive victory and occupying eighth in the Southeastern Conference standings.
Only Johnny O’Bryant’s slight grin betrayed a hint of satisfaction, even if his statement planted his toes firmly on the company line.
“It’s always good to get a win; it doesn’t matter how it comes,” he said. “Guys could have done things better, but a win is a win It’s back to the drawing board.”
Fittingly, it was O’Bryant’s two free throws with 8.9 seconds left that offered the Tigers (13-7, 4-5) a sense of relief with a 57-53 lead.
And more so after Vanderbilt guard Rod Odom, who notched a game-high 20 points on 5-of-11 shooting, splashed through a desperation 3-pointer as the horn sounded to set the final margin.
Leave it to guard Anthony Hickey to lift the doldrums long enough for LSU to assert. Despite missing his first five shots, Hickey reeled off nine of his game-high 14 points during a 16-0 run for the Tigers in the final three minutes of the half, giving LSU a 31-18 halftime lead.
Left alone on the left wing, Hickey corralled an airborne pass from Stringer to knock down the jumper on the left wing to put LSU in front 18-16 with 3:21 until the break. Two trips later, Hickey repeated the feat of defying the buzzer by hitting another open 3-pointer on a feed from Andre Stringer for a 23-18 lead with 1:41 until halftime.
“We let them get going from the (3-point line) in the first half and just stood there and watched them shoot,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “We just don’t have enough margin for two or three guys not to be solid or good.”
Fittingly, Hickey wound down the surge — one where Vandy missed its final five shots — by curling to the left wing with 4.1 seconds until the break to hit a third 3-pointer as the horn blared.
“Just open shots,” Hickey said of being prone to shooting streaks. “My teammates find me, and I was able to knock them down.”
The spurt also atoned for a barren 10-minute shooting stretch over the middle of a first half when LSU, which finished at 36 percent, started 5 of 21 from the floor.
No portion of the span proved worse than a 5:51 period when the Commodores, who hit at a 19-percent clip in the first half, dragged out an 11-2 run for a three-point lead.
“We really allowed Vandy to control the tempo in the first half,” LSU coach Jones said. “The last four or five minutes, we jumped into our press, got ourselves a nice little run.”
During the lull, LSU’s lone points came on Andrew Del Piero’s free throws with 8:29 left in the first half.
In the next three minutes, the Tigers missed five consecutive shots while Vanderbilt pulled ahead 16-13 when Kyle Fuller scored on the low block with 5:26 to go.
Maybe it was Vanderbilt’s length on the perimeter or the fact it switched on almost every screen LSU set, but the fact was Vandy drove an LSU team to take its possessions deep into the shot clock. Yet Hickey proved peril exists in that strategy, too.
“It don’t frustrate us, because we’ve got a play designed for late clock,” Hickey said. “All our guards can run it, and we’re prepared for it.”
But Vanderbilt pared into the lead midway through the second half. With his team trailing 35-23, Sheldon Jeter’s putback with 15:33 left kick-started an 8-0 run, capped by Odom splitting two free throws to narrow the gap to 35-31.
Again, Hickey mustered a reply with a bucket on the ensuing LSU possession, followed by another from O’Bryant, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds, at 11:50 to stretch the lead back to four points.
Guard Charles Carmouche, who had nine points along with freshman Malik Morgan, knocked down a 3-pointer on the right wing for a 43-31 lead at the 10:10 mark.
Vandy crept within seven points four times in the next nine minutes but could never get closer than 50-44 with 3:31 left on a free throw from Baton Rouge native Dai-Jon Parker.
Vanderbilt cobbled together a suitable challenge late.
Trailing 55-50, Odom’s accuracy behind the arc nagged at LSU when he rose up over Stringer in the left corner to stroke through another 3-pointer with 9.2 seconds left.
“They were poised there at the end, made some big threes,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, they took some tough shots, and we did get our hands on the 50-50 balls and gave them second possessions.”
Yet O’Bryant’s trip to the line ensured a two-possession game and the proper escape velocity from a scenario that might have earlier led to an implosion.
“It just shows what type of team we are to be in close games and pull them out,” O’Bryant said. “We have a tough team, and we believe we can win every game.”