BY SCOTT HOTARD
December 21, 2012
With standout point guard Anthony Hickey serving an indefinite suspension, the LSU men’s basketball team turned Tuesday night to the next man up.
The man for this night was junior Andre Stringer, who started 54 games as a freshman and sophomore — including 30 in 2010-11 as LSU’s starting point guard — but had started none this year while serving as an often-used reserve shooting guard.
That changed when LSU faced Chattanooga at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center days after the school announced Hickey had been suspended for violating athletic department and university policies.
Stringer had 18 points, four assists and three steals as Hickey’s primary replacement, leading unbeaten LSU to an 80-67 victory that ended the team’s six-game homestand to start the Johnny Jones era before an announced crowd of 6,760.
Freshman Corban Collins, who also took his turn running the point, chipped in 11 points and three assists.
“I definitely felt like I had to take care of the offense, spread the ball around as much as possible,” Stringer said. “It was a good opportunity for me to take control of the team.”
LSU (6-0) received a similar performance Nov. 13 when Johnny O’Bryant was sidelined with a calf injury. Shavon Coleman, in his only start of the year, put up game highs of 25 points and 10 rebounds to lead a rout of McNeese State.
O’Bryant, the Southeastern Conference’s third-leading rebounder entering the night, continued his strong early season play Tuesday with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
It marked O’Bryant’s third straight double-double, the first time in three years an LSU player has had three straight.
“What I like about this group is, these guys don’t blink,” Jones said. “It’s not like they’re looking over their shoulder wondering where someone is.”
It started as a game of runs with LSU, ignited by a Stinger 3-pointer on the opening possession, jumping ahead 7-0, and Chattanooga (2-7) then scoring seven straight to make it a tie game. Both teams went on additional 7-0 runs later in the half.
After the Mocs used a 6-0 surge to take a 23-20 edge, LSU answered with an 11-0 charge that made it 31-23 with 6:26 to play in the first half.
Chattanooga started 5-of-7 from 3-point range, but missed its final six shots there in the first half. Meanwhile, Stringer put in eight of his 13 first-half points over the final 8:42 to help the Tigers get to intermission sporting a 42-30 cushion.
Collins drained a 3-pointer from the wing three seconds before the halftime buzzer.
Rediscovering its outside stroke, Chattanooga (which finished 9-of-24 from long range) got all the way back within 55-53 at the 11:28 mark of the second half when Z. Mason knocked down his third 3-pointer.
Mason finished with 17 points to lead the Mocs, followed by Ronrico White with 15. Redemptorist grad Gee McGhee had seven points in his homecoming. But just when it looked like the Mocs might make a game of it, Stringer and O’Bryant helped LSU again pull away.
O’Bryant led the inside game, towering above the Chattanooga defense for multiple dunks and finishing 7-of-14 from the field. Stringer kept the shots falling from the outside, going 7-of-14 from the field and 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
“They just played hard, and they kept going at us,” O’Bryant said of Chattanooga. “We made a lot of mistakes, a lot of turnovers. We were missing easy shots. Like I said, they played hard. They kind of got us, but we just stayed focused and got the lead back up.”
Then, in the end, the most fun began.
Erstwhile walk-on Andrew Del Piero, who made his second career start Tuesday, had the PMAC rocking when he converted an alley-oop dunk, a tip-in and blocked two shots in the space of two late second-half possessions. The blossoming senior center, two years removed from surrendering his spot in the LSU band to give basketball a try, had seven points, four rebounds and three blocks.
“I thought the big fella made a difference in the game,” Chattanooga coach John Shulman said. “He’s 7-3 and he changes shots out there. He’s not an SEC athlete, but to be in the band two years ago and to be playing on this level is pretty good, to tell you the truth.”
LSU takes its strongest start in four seasons on the road Friday when the Tigers face Boise State to open a three-game road swing.
“It’s going to be very important that we stay focused this day or two we have before we go up there and compete like we always do,” Stringer said. “Practice hard, hold each other accountable like we always do.”