Digging deep to hold on: LSU defeats Missouri 77-71

Jordan Mickey broke character in the tensest of moments.

LSU’s forward rudely swatted down a layup from Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson, and along the baseline, the stone-faced freshman wheeled to a raucous student section for a rare moment.

Instead of simply handing the ball back to the official, he left his jaw hang agape and bellowed.

“Sometimes,” Mickey said. “You need to let that out.”

On Tuesday, the feeling dying to escape started as desperation but turned into relief after LSU gritted out a 6-0 spurt to take the slimmest of leads before clinging tightly down the stretch to a 77-71 victory.

A desperately coveted one, too, in front of 8,411 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Yes, March is still six weeks off, but LSU (13-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) entered scouring for a quality win.

Did Mizzou (14-4, 2-3) entirely fit the bill?

Not entirely, considering Missouri, which is No. 55 in the RPI, limped in already toting losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt.

Beggars can’t be choosers, though, with an SEC slate short on chances to enhance a postseason résumé.

LSU was not in a place to quibble after getting shellacked by Tennessee and letting a four-point lead fritter away a week ago in an overtime loss at Ole Miss.

“We never fell into the hole,” said forward Johnny O’Bryant III, who had 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting. “We never panicked. That’s the message that coach sent, and what I told my team. We just had to dig down and grow up.”

True enough in the case of Mickey, who scored 14 points, snagged 13 rebounds and blocked five shots.

Trailing 65-64, he coolly sank a pair of free-throws to put LSU ahead by a lone point. On the next trip, he sliced toward the rim for pass from O’Bryant, who was doubled, for an easy layup and a 68-65 lead with 2:26 left.

“Mick does a great job cutting when I get the ball, and I try to find as much as I can,” O’Bryant said. “He’s a great finisher at that rim.”

And on the ensuing possession, Mickey met Clarkson — one of the SEC’s best finishers in traffic — at the rim with force.

“I just hate to see a shot go over my head knowing I could have blocked it,” he said.

Finally, Shavon Coleman, who paced LSU with a season-high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, poked away the ball from Clarkson. Diving on the floor, Tim Quarterman corralled the loose ball and fed it ahead to Coleman, who finished with a layup and a 70-64 lead with 1:18 remaining.

Unlike a failed trip to Oxford, the final minute was sapped of drama. Anthony Hickey sank four free throws, and Andre Stringer came up with a game-sealing steal with 10.3 seconds left.

“Our guys did an excellent job of settling down and being poised under pressure that they put on,” Jones said. “Executing is a big thing, and I thought we re able to do that on the offensive end of the floor.”

All of this after Missouri, which shot 39.4 percent, took a lead when guard Jabari Brown, who racked up a career-high 28 points, drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing with 3:38 to go.

But it was that kind of tussle for LSU, which could never extend its lead beyond six points in the second half.

The Tigers withstood Mizzou’s vaunted back court piling up 63 points — Clarkson had 19 and Earnest Ross and 16 — and getting outscored 34-30 in the lane despite having clear advantage along the frontline.

Still, no one else on Missouri’s roster mustered much. Its frontcourt scored just eight points on 4-of-16 shooting.

LSU also withstood a slug to the jaw.

Trailing by 38-33 to start the second half, Missouri peeled of 9-2 spurt in the first two minutes, one capped by a Clarkson floater in the lane.

Again, LSU went inside to its standby in O’Bryant, who scored on back-to-back trips to pull LSU within two points.

“We weren’t getting the post touches that we needed,” Jones said. “If it’s not available, we can settle and take the 3, but we did a much better job being aggressive at the basket.”

Two trips later, Andre Stringer splashed through a 3-pointer at the top of the arc for a 50-49 lead during a 12-4 run that staked LSU through two ties and two lead changes down the stretch.

And LSU used the same formula when they fell in love with jumpers against a sagging Missouri zone in the first half, which started with the Tigers launching 17 of their first 25 shots behind the arc.

“We settled a few times knowing we should have gone to the goal,” Mickey said. “It’s hard knowing you’ve got an open jump shot to pass it up for an easy lay-up.”

After a timeout, LSU’s final six shots came inside, keying a 9-2 run finished by Mickey’s step-through lay-up with 31.4 seconds left in the first half.

It was the kind of composure the Tigers have lacked at points so far — a trait they hope was shed Tuesday.

“Coach just told us we’re growing up,” O’Bryant said. “Hopefully, by the end of this, we’ll be a great team.”