As he strode away from the LSU huddle, guard Andre Stringer didn’t notice any nerves in his fellow Tigers before Wednesday’s final defensive trip at Texas Tech.
“It’s really tough to tell,” he said.
Despite letting an eight-point lead dwindle to two, LSU gutted out a pair of stops in the final 80 seconds of their 71-69 victory. The Tigers overcame a foul-prone first half and 18 turnovers as the Red Raiders managed to whittle their deficit to just one possession three times in the final 20 minutes.
An ugly win? Sure.
A necessary sign of progress for a squad with NCAA tournament aspirations? Potentially.
The next gauge arrives for LSU (7-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday when UAB (9-2) visits the Pete Maravich Assembly Center: Can the Tigers dispose of a quality mid-major opponent?
“We already know what type of team we have,” Stringer said. “It’s just about showing everybody else the type of team we are.”
LSU’s slot in the Ratings Percentage Index ranges between No. 20 and No. 44, based on which expert you trust. As for strength of schedule, CBS’ Jerry Palm puts the Tigers at No. 31. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi? He’s got it at No. 63.
Points of agreement are easy: There’s a quality overtime victory against Butler in the Old Spice Classic and quality losses to two RPI top-50 foes (at No. 22 Massachusetts and a neutral-floor defeat to 15th-ranked Memphis).
Earlier this week, Lunardi and Palm each had coach Johnny Jones’ squad in their NCAA tournament fields.
But Saturday’s matchup may be LSU’s last chance to give its nonconference résumé a boost. The Tigers host McNeese State on Dec. 28 and Rhode Island on Jan. 4 before opening Southeastern Conference play Jan. 7 vs. Tennessee.
Wednesday night’s victory settles into the either/or category — a mix of good and bad. Jones underscored the most important part of the equation Thursday.
“It went a different way on the road in a tough environment for us last night,” he said. “We are excited, and I think this is something that will help and propel us in terms of our confidence moving forward.”
There has been progression since the Tigers opened the season six weeks ago at UMass.
That day in Amherst, LSU put the Minutemen, who shot 48 free throws, on the charity stripe too often. They couldn’t quell the opposition’s runs and had to expend energy twice rallying back from double-digit deficits.
Against Memphis, they gave the game away with 24 turnovers that were converted to 33 points. In the final three minutes, LSU watched a 68-66 game end with an 8-3 Memphis run.
On Wednesday, LSU managed to at least adapt some of those lessons learned.
“We all talked about what we wanted to accomplish this season,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to win on the road. We had to win games like that. When you get in the SEC, you need those games. We’re just preparing ourselves for that.”
The Tigers closed the first half on a 7-2 run after Tech pulled even at 37 on a Jaye Crockett layup. Shavon Coleman hit a 3 in the right corner on the next trip, and Stringer banked in a runner with 3 seconds left in the first half for a 44-39 halftime lead.
“Obviously in the heat of battle, we made some mistakes — turnovers, fouls, missed communication on some plays,” Stringer said. “But we made some plays, and the determination to win was there.”
In the final minute, LSU relied on a basic mantra: Get stops. Jordan Mickey blocked a Robert Turner layup with 48 seconds to go. Next, Anthony Hickey forced Turner to take a contested 3-pointer with 3 seconds left that clanked off the back rim.
Sure, escaping United Spirit Arena with a close win may not improve LSU’s seeding much come March. But the Tigers know the outcome is the marker of a team in the discussion for whether it’s on the dance card.
As far as that’s concerned, sometimes the best win is avoiding a bad loss.
“We’ve been in a lot of tough games since I’ve been here,” Hickey said. “We’re more hungry.”