Harris: LSU’s success hinges on Anthony Hickey

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Seconds removed from his game-winning floater Saturday, Anthony Hickey blantantly disavowed good judgment.

Forgetting 1.5 seconds still showed on the clock, the sophomore high-stepped down the hardwood at Humphrey Coliseum. LSU led Mississippi State 69-68. The Bulldogs still had a chance. Jaw agape and bellowing, Hickey didn’t notice Mississippi State trigger the inbounds play. Normally a rover near halfcourt in the Tigers’ press, Hickey could only gaze on as the Bulldogs’ Jalen Steele heaved a 60-foot shot. It was off target.

The ball thumped. A horn sounded. And a purple-clad mob met Hickey near the despondent MSU bench.

The scene rendered a stark assessment, though: Hickey is the lone reliable entity for coach Johnny Jones. And LSU’s ultimate fortunes over the next month are squarely knotted to his performance.

The first half of Saturday’s potential debacle against the Southeastern Conference’s worst team only underscored that.

Parked on a folding chair for the final 10 minutes of the first half, Hickey glumly watched the Tigers flail without him.

Trailing 20-8 with 10:35 until halftime, LSU shot just 27 percent the rest of the way, missing all eight of its 3-pointers.

“We needed to take our time, get the ball inside, force them to collapse and see if we could get better looks,” Jones said.

Logical, no doubt.

Only a revived Johnny O’Bryant III — who seems the biggest variable lately, with four-consecutive double-doubles — remained passive. He lumbered into the locker room with just four points on 2-of-6 shooting.

“Coach came in at halftime and got on me a little bit,” O’Bryant said. “He told me I had to get going if we were going to win.”

And the Tigers lacked a steady hand as they tried to wreak havoc, turning the ball over eight times themselves. As a result, MSU — a team that failed to break 50 points in three of its past four games — had 15 points on the fast break.

Mississippi State waylaid LSU for an entire half, making the Tigers’ upset of No. 17 Missouri as an outlier rather than a sign of more to come.

Nearing the midpoint in SEC play, the Tigers have proclaimed they’re more competitive than their record, a young team stumbling over awkward feet in trying to close games.

And it’s tempting to invest in their sales pitch, too.

The next five games afford coach Johnny Jones’ squad a navigable route back to .500.

Yet, LSU’s growing pains now seem to be entrenched personality traits.

Hickey’s performance may be the key for the Tigers, and that seems increasingly evident to his teammates.

Ten minutes removed from his heroic tear-drop shot, Hickey professed a willingness to let the ball leave his hands after splitting two defenders on LSU’s final possession.

“If they had sucked in, I would have made the extra pass,” he said.

But then came the biggest caveat and insight.

“I’ve got big shoulders,” Hickey said. “If I miss that shot, I’ll tell my teammates we’ll have a good chance next time.”

It doesn’t imply Hickey’s teammates shrink from the task or have a lack of composure.

But watching the dwindling two minutes play out, as Hickey scored the Tigers’ final seven points, an observer wouldn’t find it difficult to understand his importance to the team.

Without a doubt, the Tigers reached the same verdict long before Saturday.

In reality, the outcome was just another exhibit on a growing list of evidence.

“Hickey’s amazing, man,” O’Bryant said.