Rhode Island too tough for LSU, stuns Tigers 74-70

When a deep 3-pointer thumped off the front rim, Anthony Hickey couldn’t bail LSU out of the calamity it created.

Plodding up the tunnel after a 74-70 stunner to Rhode Island, the Tigers’ bad habits were laid bare on the scoreboard hanging over the Pete Maravich Assembly Center hardwood.

A slow start? Check.

Struggles rebounding against a smaller frontcourt? Yep.

Stilted execution and settling on the offensive end? Sure.

Over the past month, digging out of a deficit like the 12-point one the Tigers (9-3) faced against the Rams (9-6) had become risky routine. On Saturday, a scrappy Rhode Island squad fended off blitz after blitz and used an 8-0 run to take a 67-59 lead they clung to over the final five minutes.

“They came out on point,” guard Anthony Hickey said. “And we were a little flat.”

There’s little time to stew, either. Tennessee arrives on Tuesday night, and with it the grind that comes with Southeastern Conference play.

“We’ve got enough veterans on this basketball team to understand the sense of urgency,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said.

In the final 90 seconds, LSU pulled within 71-70 but didn’t get any closer.

Hickey missed a floater on a fastbreak with 33 seconds left after forcing a steal near midcourt, while the final play drawn up by Johnny Jones in the huddle with 11.8 seconds to go and down 72-70 came up empty.

Off an inbound pass in front of the LSU bench, a play designed to find guard Andre Stringer off a screen was covered. Yet Hickey pulled up for a deep 3-pointer with 6.5 seconds still on the clock.

The shot didn’t go down, and there was the looming question of whether he could have driven the lane for a better look.

“A little bit, I think I could’ve have taken it up a little more,” Hickey said.

And the Rams, who entered at No. 227 in the RPI, escaped with an upset that started behind a 13-0 run bookended by a layup and 3-pointer from forward Gilvydas Birutas for a 24-17 lead with 6:25 left until halftime.

It was a microcosm of LSU’s woeful night.

Instead of attacking the rim, forward Johnny O’Bryant III, who had just three points and three rebounds, settled for turnaround jumpers — a habit that led to the junior sitting the first 12 minutes of the second half — and didn’t get his hands on a rebound.

“We weren’t putting enough pressure on the basket,” Jones said. “He is big and strong enough to make the plays we needed. He settled a little too much on the perimeter.”

Second chances were scant, too. But so was the requisite intensity to compete for misses around the rim. Despite a size advantage, LSU was outrebounded 46-32, while Jordan Mickey and O’Bryant nabbed just five boards.

“We obviously rebounded,” URI coach Dan Hurley said. “They had chances to get tip-ins during some of those wild skirmishes. We had our perimeter guys flying in and swatting the ball away.”

Getting timely stops proved troublesome for the Tigers.

Trailing 36-30 at halftime, Jones again chided LSU for a slow start and demanded crisper execution on the offensive end and intensity on the glass.

“It’s just our team’s lack of focus,” said Mickey, who led LSU with 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting. “We have to come in ready to play every game.”

Instead, Biruta, who had 19 points and 14 rebounds, notched URI’s first nine points out of the locker room to extend the Rams’ lead to its largest of the game at 45-33 with 16:44 left.

Mickey scored seven straight, while Andre Strnger canned two 3-pointers to narrow the deficit to 47-44 with roughly 13 minutes left. After cutting along the baseline, Mickey mashed down a two-handed dunk on a feed from Stringer, who had 13 points and five assists, that ignited an 8-0 run for a 52-51 lead with 9:57 left.

“They withstood every punch the whole game,” Stringer said.

Now, LSU has only three days to get back up from the blow.

“You can’t take no team for granted,” Hickey said. “We’ve got a big game here on Tuesday, and that can bounce us right back.”