LSU defeats Alabama 68-56 in the SEC tournament

ATLANTA — Stepping off LSU’s charter plane, Tim Quarterman detected a difference in the air after it landed Tuesday for the SEC tournament.

The freshman even told Tigers coach Johnny Jones.

“The air smells different,” said Quarterman, a native of Savannah, Ga., which is a three-hour drive to the east.

“I hope your game is different,” Jones told him.

After he sailed in for a putback dunk late in the first half Wednesday, there was little doubt Quarterman followed Jones’ directive, scoring seven points during a decisive 13-0 in No. 7-seeded Tigers’ 68-56 victory against Alabama on Thursday.

“He was the tone-setter for us tonight,” Jones said. “We’re glad he was able to bounce back tonight and put us in a position tonight.”

And after hearing questions about what LSU might resemble if its vaunted freshmen clicked, the Tigers (19-12) got a preview against the Crimson Tide (13-19) inside the Georgia Dome.

The trio of Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Quarterman combined for 31 points on 13 of 22 shooting, paced by a career-high 12 from the guard of the group.

“I spend so much time with these guys, and I’ve seen them do so much more. They should what they could do tonight.”

With a third meeting against No. 2 seed Kentucky looming at 6 p.m. Friday, the Tigers’ corps of youth needs to find a way to replicate the effort in the quarterfinals.

“Coach talked to us a lot lately about making difference,” Quarterman said. “Not worry about being freshman, but just playing aggressive.”

Sure, Shavon Coleman racked up 15 points, knocking down five 3-pointers on a night LSU went 11 of 22 from long range.

Yes, LSU, a team whose defensive woes are well known, clamped down to hold the Crimson tide to 36.0 percent shooting, including 6 of 28 from behind the arc. After trailing 35-24 at halftime, Bama never cut the lead below seven points the rest of the way.

Tide guard Trevor Releford scored just 11 points, while freshman forward Shannon Hale also added 11 on the night.

But it was Quarterman that spurred LSU, which shot 50.0 percent from the floor, ahead after the Tide took a 21-18 lead on a 12-3 run.

“We talked a little bit before the game tonight about how important he was to this basketball team and getting locked in,” Jones said, “about how bad they needed him to be focused.”

Slipping along the baseline on a backdoor cut got him his first bucket with 7:28 left, and put the Tigers ahead 22-20.

For a kid shooting just 24.2 percent from the floor, including a 1 of 17 slump over the past night games, seeing twine ripple was good enough.

“It was just good to see the ball through the net,” Quarterman said. “My confidence picked up, and I just kept going.”

Two minutes later, Quarterman jacked in a 3-pointer over the outstretched hand, setting aside his mediocre 17.5 percentage from long range for a six-point lead.

Next, another layup on fastbreak created by a Shavon Coleman steal near the top of the key for a 31-21 lead with 3:14 until halftime.

Already, LSU might have consider the points a boon in a game where four players reached double figures, including a hyper-efficient 11 points on 5 of 7 shooting from Johnny O’Bryant III.

But the soft-spoken Quarterman had a crescendo in store.

After an Anthony Hickey 3-pointer kicked off the back rim, Quarterman noticed his defender rush to box out Mickey. Darting in, he elevated to flush the miss home, capping the run at 33-21 with around 2:16 until halftime.

“I just went to goal,” Quarterman said. “Nobody got in my way.”

Oddly, Quarterman was the only one doing that in recent weeks.

Ahead of the Tigers’ road loss at Kentucky, a close family friend passed. Instead of flying to Lexington, Ky., Quarterman jumped a flight home.

Around the program, specifics have been scant, but Jones hinted his point guard – a rangy 6-foot-6, 173-pounder – had to rummage around his mind and clear out the clutter.

“He’s been dealing with some other issues away from the floor, and (we’ve) really been trying to reel him back in,” Jones said.

Whether Thursday night was an aberration will be sorted out in due time. For Quarterman, it suited him fine.

“It’s around that time,” Quarterman said. “Do or die.”