Rabalais: In need of a big step, LSU takes one

From one Johnny Basketball to another, the inspirational torch was passed.

“Coach says by March, we’ll be a great team,” LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant III said, relaying encouraging words from his coach, Johnny Jones.

For any potential greatness growing within these Tigers to matter, they have to win now, not wait for another month or more to pass. By then it would be too late.

It seemed like the moment had slipped through LSU’s grasp last Wednesday when the Tigers fumbled a gold-plated opportunity to win at Ole Miss, getting lapped in overtime like a stock car down a cylinder.

Down, but not out, as it turns out for this LSU team.

Pushed to the brink, perhaps, but not over it.

If they dare to be great, the LSU Tigers will have to earn it. They found the right path Saturday by pulling away from Vanderbilt 81-58.

They took a couple of giant steps in the right direction Tuesday night by holding off a talented, dangerous Missouri team 77-71.

“We’ve got to chalk up the wins and keep it going,” O’Bryant said.

LSU still has a ways to travel to even get to where it can even see the NCAA tournament bubble with a pair of binoculars. But the Tigers have charts and a couple of stars to guide them.

O’Bryant is one, the proven commodity. He turned in another strong performance Tuesday after racking up a double-double against Vandy (22 points, 12 rebounds), coming back on the heels with 16 points and six rebounds.

But Jordan Mickey continues to impress. Before a tense, sometimes thunderous but half-full Pete Maravich Assembly Center — an audience that included a battery of NBA scouts strung atop the top row of the press section, plus a bunch of banana-costumed crazies in the front row of the student section — Mickey continues to grow game by game. Moment, it seems, by moment.

Mizzou’s guards were great. Jabari Brown poured in a game-high 28 points, Jordan Clarkson 19, Earnest Ross 16 points and 11 rebounds.

But Mickey matched their perimeter weight with some heavy lifting inside. His line in the box score, like a piece of stone hacked out of a quarry and chiseled with bold numbers read 14 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.

“This was a real big win for us,” said Mickey in a voice that sounds older than his 19 years. “We needed this win, and we wanted it.”

There are no doubleheaders in basketball, but this game was like two for the price of one.

For most of the first half, LSU and Missouri were content to bang away at each other with long-range artillery, inflicting little damage but putting on a pretty fireworks show from outside the 3-point arc. LSU jacked up 17 3-pointers, making six, while Missouri was 4 of 9 as the home Tigers crept into the locker room clutching a 38-33 lead.

The game changed in the second half into more ground-and-pound and less aerial assault. LSU was just 1 of 5 shooting 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes, choosing to win or lose on the strong-arm tactics of O’Bryant and Mickey and Shavon Coleman (19 points, five rebounds).

“Down the stretch, we pounded the ball inside,” Mickey said. “We didn’t settle for 3s. In the second half, we knew we needed to go inside. We haven’t been shooting as many free throws as we’ve needed.”

LSU was an imperfect 12 of 18 from the free-throw line in the second half, but after shooting only eight free throws in the first half, the Tigers found the right script.

“I’m proud of our team the way they played with toughness down the stretch,” Jones said.

“We’ve played a lot of close games, won our share. I thought being at home tonight our guys did an excellent job settling down being under the pressure they (Missouri) put on us.”

LSU heads back on the road Saturday to Alabama. The Crimson Tide is at a low ebb this season, scuffling along with an 8-9 overall record heading into what looks like another loss at home Thursday against No. 6-ranked Florida.

But LSU has won more football games than basketball games in Tuscaloosa phe last nine years — easy math when you consider that the Tigers haven’t won there in basketball at all that entire time.

Still close enough to the edge to topple completely out of NCAA contention, LSU needs to keep the good vibes going in Tuscaloosa with another win, to make the chance to be great in March mean something.