Tigers’ defense can’t halt Aggies

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Alex Caruso floated under the rim and flipped the ball of the glass as LSU’s Shane Hammink made contact.

Stepping to the free throw line, the Texas A&M guard coolly swished a free-throw, in the process puncturing a sizable hole in the Tigers slippery seat on NCAA tournament bubble.

Again, a precociously talented LSU men’s basketball team broke down defensively, got thumped on the backboards and saw key cog Johnny O’Bryant III pulled under by foul trouble in an 83-73 loss Wednesday night in front of 4,782 fans at Reed Arena.

Perhaps, too, second-year coach Johnny Jones easily identified the root cause for the Tigers (15-8, 6-5 Southeastern Conference), who fell to 1-5 away from Baton Rouge.

“They came out tonight and played with a sense of urgency,” Jones said. “And a sense of toughness that they needed.”

Right now, figuring out what’s flummoxing LSU, saddled with a loss to the No. 144 team in the RPI, on the road is more pressing.

Sure, LSU snipped a double-digit lead down early in the second half on a powerful one-handed dunk by O’Bryant, who finished with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, in transition with 12 minutes left.

Too often, though, LSU couldn’t come up with enough stops, snatch enough rebounds, or force enough gaffes rally.

And Texas A&M (14-10, 4-7), which entered as one the SEC’s most anemic offensive shooting teams, peeled off a run.

Fittingly, it started behind the arc, where an Aggies team that entered hitting a woeful 30.2 percent clip drilled 10 of 23 3-pointers it hoisted up to tie a season best.

Guard Jamal Jones, who scored 14 of his team-high 19 points after the half, swished a 3, followed up a trip later by Fabyon Harris slithering into the teeth of the LSU defense for a floater.

Three minutes later, Jones knifed into the middle of the lane for a floater of his own at the 11:06 mark to cap an 11-3 run with a 62-50 lead that peaked at 15 points with 6:28 left.

“They were able to stretch our defense,” Jones said. ‘That’s not something they’ve been noted for.”

LSU, meanwhile, never seriously threatened.

“You’ve just got to adjust as you,” Hickey said. “They just kept making plays whenever they needed to.”

After two consecutive games where once-putrid offenses scorched LSU, simple tweaks might not be enough.

The Aggies, who shot 48.3 percent from the floor, again found ways of driving past slow-reacting or out of position Tigers defenders on the wing.

Inside, Texas A&M rolled up a 36-26 edge scoring in the paint. On the glass, the Aggies, who entered with an SEC-worst average minus-8.1 rebound margin, beat LSU 39-32.

Part of the problem stemmed from O’Bryant, whose torried start netted eight points and an early 18-11 lead, plodding to the bench in foul trouble.

“I’ve got to stop getting into foul trouble on the road,” O’Bryant said simply afterward.

In the span of just 10 seconds, the junior picked up to cheapies, and the Aggies responded with a 15-6 run over five minutes – one sparked by a Texas A&M bench that trounced LSU’s 33-5.

Davonte Fitzgerald, who finished with 11 points before leaving with knee injury late in the first half, reeled off the first eight, including a 3-pointer with 10:01 until the break to make it a 24-22 deficit.

And in less than 30-seconds, Jordan Green popped of five points of his own, capped by steal-and-score for a 29-28 lead at the 6:59 mark that grew to 43-37 at halftime.

Consider that for a moment, too. The Aggies hadn’t cracked 40 points in Dec. 14 in a victory over McNeese State.

“We just think instead of doing things,” said LSU swingman Shavon Coleman, whose 21 points weren’t enough. ‘We’ve got to get there and do the right thing. We’ve just got to keep our man in front and play defense.”

Asked whether there was any correlation to defensive woes with O’Bryant on the bench, Jones dismissed the notion.

“We’ve got to be a better man-to-man defensive basketball team,” Jones said. “As a team, you’ve got to be good enough to contain your guy.”

But a larger question looms now: Are the Tigers’ road struggles gnawing at their collective psyche?

“We’ve just got to play basketball,” Hickey said. ‘When we go on the road, it’s no different. There’s 10 (players) on the floor. There’s five of us. There’s five of them. We’ve got to get wins.”

They have no choice now, either with four losses to sub-100 RPI teams on the season.

Chances are, too, they’ll head to Atlanta and the SEC tournament looking for help.

But all that has little to do with the problems staring LSU in the face right now and another road trip looming Saturday at Arkansas.

“We let you guys chock us up to finish however, but we’ve got Arkansas on the road,” O’Bryant said. “That’s all we’re looking ahead to.”