Bolting down the floor, Johnny O’Bryant III snatched a feed from Anthony Hickey and flushed any hangover effects for LSU.
Four days after his team upset Kentucky, the junior’s two-handed rim-rattler suggested what would unfold in an 88-74 victory Saturday.
Over two hours, the Tigers (14-6, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) bludgeoned the Razorbacks (13-8, 2-6) in the lane, stymied coach Mike Anderson’s crew with a zone defense and squashed two second-half rallies.
In the process, coach Johnny Jones’ squad slipped farther away from the tightly packed middle of the SEC standings with a workable February slate ahead.
So, how to explain the transformation?
That’s all, O’Bryant said.
“We’re just a team that’s getting better,”said O’Bryant, who paced LSU with 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting. “A lot of people had their doubts about us, but we always believed, and Coach always believed, this time of year, we’d be a better team.”
Of course, it helps that the Tigers have kicked their frustrating habit of starting slow. The Razorbacks, down two key contributors after forward Alandise Harris and guard Michael Qualls were suspended earlier Saturday, learned that early.
Just as it did against Kentucky, LSU pounced early, peeling off a 16-6 run — hitting seven of their first 10 shots — in the first six minutes, a run capped by O’Bryant. Rising from the left elbow, he buried a jumper that left Anderson little recourse but to call a timeout.
“It was important for us to come out of the gate quickly,” Jones said. “The one thing we didn’t want was a confident (Arkansas) basketball team coming out of the locker room.”
For a second consecutive game, one they led wire to wire, LSU’s zone defense was befuddling. Arkansas, which shot just 32.8 percent, clanked 15 of its first 20 shots and found itself settling for jumpers. Unable to knock down shots, the Razorbacks couldn’t set their press.
Instead, an irksome cycle unfolded for Arkansas: a long 3-pointer thumping off the rim, an LSU rebound and a defensive trip that ended with the Tigers getting quality looks inside.
“They’d come down, take a bad shot and we’d just come down and execute,” O’Bryant said. “We just kept doing it over and over.”
Ones like the high-low feed from Shavon Coleman, one of a season-high 22 LSU assists, to O’Bryant for an easy layup.
Or the dish-off on the next from point guard Tim Quarterman to Jarell Martin darting down the lane to put the ball off the window for a 26-9 lead with 10 minutes until halftime.
You could look at the final three minutes until halftime when Jordan Mickey, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds, took a pass from O’Bryant for a reverse layup. On the next trip, Coleman again found the freshman for a 40-25 lead that LSU took into the locker room.
The result was LSU knocking down 54.7 percent of its shots — its second-best field goal percentage of the season — and rolling up a 48-24 edge in the paint.
Oh, and it came against a zone look from the Razorbacks — a move that a just a couple of weeks ago might have short-circuited LSU’s flow.
“They’ve done a tremendous job sharing the basketball,” Jones said. “They’re moving the ball around, getting it to the open guy and are able to make plays. They’re not shooting ball quick.”
Down 48-33, the Razorbacks patched together a 7-0 spurt to slice the lead to 10 points. Kikko Haydar, who had 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting off the bench, swished a 3-pointer on the left wing, and Bobby Portis converted a steal into a dunk with 15:16 to go to for a 48-38 hole.
LSU’s rebuttal: Go inside. O’Bryant scored in traffic two minutes later to get the lead back to 13 points.
“When teams make a run, we have to slow them down,” Mickey said. “Just slow them down and get the ball inside.”
Haydar connected again from long range with 13:22 remaining to slice the lead to 51-38. Ditto for a reply from LSU. This time: a 3-pointer from Malik Morgan to make it 54-43.
“We made our runs, and LSU did what they did to hold us off,” said Anderson, who is now 2-22 in SEC road games. “The key is not getting in those big holes.”
Trailing 70-50, Arkansas ran off an 11-0 spurt to pull within nine points on a pair of free throws from Haydar at the 6:32 mark.
Two minutes later, Mardracus Wade drilled a 3-pointer at the top of the arc to cut the deficit to 74-68. But at the other end, LSU played inside-out, with O’Bryant firing a pass out of the post to Martin for a 3-pointer with 4:31 left.
Gassed, Arkansas wheezed down the stretch. It was a point punctuated when Moses Kingsley came up with a steal, drove toward the rim, elevated and met the right hand of Mickey, who notched his sixth block.
The next step of LSU’s evolution arrives Thursday, when the Tigers travel to Georgia.
“We’ve just got to go on the road and get wins,” O’Bryant said. “That’s been our toughest task in league play.
“We’ve just got to go on the road and execute.”