Tigers suffer fifth straight loss on road
“It’s tough, man. We know the critics are going to talk and doubt you, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to get ready for Mississippi State.” JOHNNY O’BRYANT III, LSU forward
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Johnny O’Bryant III scooted across the floor to cut off Alandise Harris barreling toward the rim.
Sliding into position, the LSU forward executed every bit of the proper fundamentals to get a stop with the Tigers clinging to a three-point lead Saturday against Arkansas.
Instead of a charge, though, the Arkansas forward simply crushed a one-handed dunk on O’Bryant’s noggin, igniting a 10-2 run as the Razorbacks pulled away over the final 10 minutes of an 81-70 win at Bud Walton Arena and sent LSU tumbling to its fifth-consecutive road loss.
No, it wasn’t a complete collapse, but the Tigers (15-9, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) again couldn’t muscle up with key stops or prevent Arkansas (16-9, 5-7) from bombing away behind the 3-point line.
Worse, though, might be the growing sense LSU is still groping for a solution.
“It’s hard to say,” guard Andre Stringer said. “It’s hard to put our finger on it right now.”
But no so much that LSU coach Johnny Jones seems outwardly worried about morale — even if the Tigers increasingly jeopardize their chances of landing in the NIT.
“Our guys are really good at getting on to the next game, and we had a much better outing tonight,” Jones said.
“The effort that they gave from tip to finish was extremely positive, and they’ll do the same thing next week.”
Finding a way to salve wounds, though, is becoming tougher.
Increasingly, LSU’s players hint they’re hearing critiques of a team laden with talent and picked to finish fourth in the SEC that’s drifiting further toward the fringes of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s tough, man,” said O’Bryant, who had a team-high 20 points and a career-best 16 rebounds. “We know the critics are going to talk and doubt you, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to get ready for Mississippi State.”
Not that the Tigers didn’t have a prime chance to swipe a win away from Baton Rouge.
After trailing by four points at the break, Anthony Hickey slithered along the left baseline to suck in the Razorbacks’ help-side defense before jumping and firing a kick out to Stringer, who had 13 points off the bench, for wide-open 3-pointer to put LSU ahead 55-54.
On the next trip, Stringer then fed O’Bryant for a dunk to make it a three-point lead with roughly 10 minutes left.
All LSU, which wound up shooting 39.4 percent, needed was to string together stops.
None were coming.
Harris ignited the crowd of 18,904 with his dunk, followed by back-to-back baskets from freshman Bobby Portis to stretch Arkansas lead out to 60-57 with 8:54 left.
“We kept attacking,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “It was good to see him kind of unleash the beast in him. That’s what we needed at that point and time, and it just went through our basketball team.”
Jones, though, simply viewed Harris’ dunk as routine, a player simply executing.
“We were really on to the next play,” Jones said. “Great dunk. Great play. A powerful strong move from him, and certainly got their crowd going.”
Instead, it was LSU’s zone, rolled out to take away driving lanes, that was strafed behind the arc. And the culprit was a big man able to face up.
Forward Coty Clarke drilled a 3-pointer on the right wing en route to 16 points, which included hitting 3-of-4 behind the arc, to push the lead out to 63-59 before the run was capped with a bucket from Rashad Madden, who scored a game-high 21 points, to make it a six-point lead with 5:31 to go.
“They were ready for our zone this time,” Stringer said.
Two minutes later, it was Clarke, who sat most of the first half with foul trouble, that punished LSU for slow rotations in the zone. The senior loaded up and launched a 3-pointer all while LSU forward Jarell Martin looked on to make it 73-66 lead.
It hardly mattered that LSU won the rebound battle with a plus-10 margin, or outscored Arkansas 42-20 in the paint. And that it’s bench stepped up to provide 17 points.
Not when Arkansas, which shot 45.8 percent, hits 10 of 23 shots hoisted behind the 3-point stripe.
“People have tried to drive us and get us in foul trouble, so we’re playing inside out,” Jones said. “When they make pitch plays, it’s extremely tough to close out, and guys are just capable of hitting shots.”
What’s clear is the confidence infused from knocking off then-No. 11 Kentucky three weeks ago is dwindling.
The path ahead isn’t any easier, either. Trips to SEC kingpins Kentucky and Florida loom. Throw in hosting an overachieving Georgia squad for the season-finale, and finding a way to a .500 finish might be difficult for a Tigers program that harbored NCAA tournament hopes to start the season.
“It’s really tough, man,” O’Bryant said. “It’s really tough to drop every road game but one is really tough. For a team that works so hard, we’ve just got to get over the hump.”
Whether the resolve remains to make the ascent, however, might be a growing worry and the losses harder to forget.
“It definitely is,” Stringer said. “Our teammates is down right now. It’s my job to pick them back up. We have a lot of heart left.”