STARKVILLE, Miss. — Pushing the ball up the floor in the waning seconds of Saturday’s game at Humphrey Coliseum, fleet-footed Anthony Hickey was supposed to have Mississippi State guard Trivante Bloodman hounding him.
Clinging to a one-point lead, Bloodman and Roquez Johnson got crossways, creating a seam for Hickey.
Darting into the paint, the sophomore rose and lofted a game-winning floater with 1.5 seconds left, giving LSU a confounding 69-68 victory, ending an seven-game road losing streak after the Tigers trailed by 17 points in the first half.
And a dumbfounded crowd of 5,880 trudged away after the Bulldogs (7-13, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) let a six-point lead wilt in the final two minutes as the Tigers (12-7, 2-5) reeled off a 9-2 closing burst capped by Hickey’s bucket.
“Get to the rack,” said Hickey, who scored LSU’s final seven points on his way to a team-high 12. “I usually settle for a jump shot, but I took coach’s advice for a change.”
Fittingly, Hickey’s jumper ushered in his heroic 46.7 second rally — one that came after MSU popped off six-consecutive points for a 66-60 lead.
Hickey, by the way, was saddled with four fouls.
No matter, though.
Alone on the left wing, he knocked down a 3-pointer to pare LSU’s deficit to 66-65.
At the other end, forward Colin Borchert couldn’t escape a trapping double-team. He picked up a five-second call with 28.7 seconds left.
On the next possession, Hickey turned the corner and pulled up for a jumper at the free-throw line for a 67-66 lead — LSU’s first since barely three minutes into the first half.
Yet Bloodman took a pass at the top off the circle off an inbounds play and sliced into the lane for a layup and a one-point lead with 7.9 seconds remaining.
With the Bulldogs jubilant, coach Rick Ray faced scant choice in calling a timeout to set his defense. The plan: Have Johnson shadow Hickey, with Bloodman in front.
“Don’t let him get into the paint,” Ware said. “If he gets on a run, get the ball stopped.”
The Bulldogs botched it.
For Hickey, it was eerily reminiscent of LSU’s last game against Mississippi State when he sank a floater with 1.4 seconds to play for 69-67 LSU victory over the Bulldogs in overtime.
“I don’t think he was going to give it up unless he really didn’t have a good look,” teammate Andre Stringer said.
Reeling from an 0-4 SEC start, the Tigers, who upset No. 17 Missouri on Wednesday, can now take solace that they’ve shirked a lingering inability to close out games.
“We can see that we’re growing,” Stringer said. “Obviously, we didn’t start well, but being clutch at the end helps and on down the line.”
But Mississippi State, which entered on a five-game losing streak, squandered a plethora of chances over a four-minute stretch and leading 59-47 with 9:02 left.
Stepping to the free-throw line nine times, the Bulldogs knocked down one and missed 3 of 13 to close out the game.
“If we didn’t miss those free throws, we would have had this game,” said Ware, who paced MSU with 14 points and seven rebounds. “That is unacceptable. We just can’t throw the game away.”
Asked if nerves nagged at the Bulldogs down the stretch, Ray passed on an assessment.
“If I could answer that, I would be a free-throw coach,” Ray said. “I would go around the nation solving those problems.”
As the Bulldogs’ fortunes waned, Hickey warmed, starting with a 3-pointer on the right wing after Stringer swung the ball to him, narrowing the gap to 60-56 with 5:43 left.
A trip later, Coleman scored in the lane, trimming it to two. O’Bryant pulled the Tigers even with two free throws at 3:15 after Fred Thomas jumped over his back on a rebound.
“When I looked up (at) the clock with three minutes left and we were down by two, I thought, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win,’ ” said O’Bryant, who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for a fifth-consecutive double-double.
The Bulldogs, who are dead last in the SEC in scoring and field-goal percentage, bolted a 22-8 lead with 9:52 left until halftime as Ray’s squad shot 58 percent from the floor.
The bulk off that lead was built behind an 18-3 run that included a 6:20 scoring drought where LSU missed seven shots and committed three turnovers.
“They had gotten into a really good rhythm,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “They made shots, and the one thing we wanted to do was apply a little more pressure, extend our defense and try and see if we could turn them over.”
Instead, it was Mississippi State’s 1-3-1 zone trap that stymied LSU, forcing 11 turnovers and holding the Tigers to 27 percent shooting.
Instead of getting inside, the Tigers settled for early 3-pointers, making only 2 of 14 in the first half and trailing 40-26 going into the locker room.
“We were settling too early,” Jones said. “We needed to take our time, get the ball inside, force them to collapse and see if we could get better looks.”
The chipping away began methodically, with LSU pulling within 48-41 at 13:28 in the second half when O’Bryant scored on a sideline inbounds pass where Stringer threaded the ball through traffic and found the forward on the left block.
Mississippi State answered with a 7-2 spurt of its own, capped by Sword knocking down a pull-up jumper on the right baseline for a 55-43 lead.
Worse, Hickey picked up his fourth foul reaching in on Bloodman, who finished with 12 points during an inbounds play in front of the MSU bench with 9:06 left, allowing the Bulldogs guard to hit free throws to make it a 59-47.
Yelping to Jones, his thoughts on the matter of taking a seat in a folding chair we’re clear.
“Don’t take me out,” Hickey said. “I’ll foul out playing this game.”
Jones obliged, and Hickey could only conjure a smirk afterward for the gesture of faith.
”Our confidence is going to go up a little more, but we’ve got another game,” Hickey said. ‘We’re going to celebrate a little on the bus ride.”