Perched behind a table in a dimly lit press room, the four voices speaking on LSU’s behalf after an 80-68 victory against Mississippi State didn’t use the moment for a bully pulpit Saturday.
Three weeks ago, a clutch of Tigers stood in the hallways of Rupp Arena after a loss against Kentucky to calmly declare the program was better than its 1-5 start in the Southeastern Conference.
And LSU’s dispatching of the Bulldogs in front of 9,720 fans at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, an effort put on autopilot by a 16-3 run in the closing six minutes of the first half, might have served as right and proper vindication.
Scrunched between Johnny O’Bryant and Malik Morgan, sophomore guard Anthony Hickey let his soft drawl parrot the company line after the Tigers (15-8, 6-6) notched its fifth victory in six games, one where LSU led State (7-17, 2-10) by as many as 22 points and put five players in double figures.
“It’s great it’s in our hands, but we can’t settle for that,” Hickey said. “I’m glad were close to .500, but we’ve got more games left and it’s time to get those wins.”
A tepid tone is only prudent after the Tigers’ mimicry of a similar spurt last season where they rallied from a 2-5 start to knock off Georgia for a 7-6 record with three SEC games left. Instead, LSU whiffed in losing to Ole Miss, Tennessee, Auburn by roughly 15 points per game.
“We made a run toward the end,” O’Bryant said. “We also let a couple get away from us last year toward the end. We want to try and avoid that this year.”
For now, simply carrying out the required task against Mississippi State, which entered with only six players on scholarship, will have to suffice.
Knotted at 27-27 with 5:40 left in the first half, guard Charles Carmouche rose to knock down a jumper near the free-throw line to ignite LSU’s decisive run and the senior’s route to a career-high 21 points.
A trip later, center Andrew Del Piero, who had a career-high 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, notched a layup in the lane, followed up by splitting a pair of free throws with 4:06 left in the first half to extend the lead to 30-26.
Over the next three minutes, State, which shot 42.0 percent, went scoreless and LSU expanded the lead to 38-28, capping the stretch with Hickey 3-pointer on the right wing.
Bulldogs forward Gavin Ware spelled the burst with a dunk near the left block, only to guard Andre Stringer, who scored all 10 of his points in the first half, splash through a 3-pointer at the top of the key for a 41-28 halftime lead.
“We need guys that can take away their shot and take away their vision,” Ray said. “We haven’t done that and we haven’t built that habit up and that’s my fault.”
Struggling the past three games, LSU guards combined to knock down 17 of 33 shots, including 11 3-pointers, and key the Tigers to a 54.5 percent clip for the night.
“They made extra passes guys did an excellent job of executing in terms of making those baskets when the opportunity presented itself,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “When we knock down some shots early on from the three-point line. I thought it became kind of contagious in a sense.”
Carmouche, who entered shooting just 30 percent behind the arc, found his absent stroke, scoring 17 points in the second half.
Spotting up in the right corner as LSU swung the ball against a 1-3-1 zone trap often left him alone to set up four second-half 3-pointers, including his final one to make it a 73-51 lead with 4:38 to play.
“I think I’m always confident,” Carmouche said. “I just had a great shooting night; balls were falling for me.”
Inside, O’Bryant is no longer flustered by the pestering double teams sent his way, either. On Saturday, the sophomore forward notched 10 points and 11 rebounds, but it was his eight assists — five in the second half — that added another dimension to LSU’s attack.
“He made great decisions,” Jones said. “They did a great job later in trying to send two people at him. He didn’t force the action.”
The only stretch State proved irksome was a two-minute stretch where it popped off a 7-0 run to pull even 23-23. Trailing by five, guard Fred Thomas hit a 3-pointer on the left wing, and Gavin Ware got a putback but couldn’t convert a three-point play opportunity with 7:28 left until halftime.
Freshman Craig Sword scored a game-high 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting, and forward Colin Borchert added 11 points and Ware chipped in 10 for the Bulldogs.
“They were hitting us with some screens and we probably weren’t aggressive enough in trying to clear,” Jones said. “We probably didn’t have enough help from our post game. We had to be a little bit more physical on ball.”
Mississippi State missed five of its final six shots to close the half, and endured a 6:40 stretch in the second half without a field goal after pulling within 43-35 on a Sword jumper with 18:51 left in the second half.
Over that chasm of time, the Tigers expanded the lead to 57-38 after Del Piero split a pair of free throws at 12:11 mark, and never let it slip below 13 points.
Earlier in the week, Jones calmly said the sole focus for LSU was on improved seeding in the SEC tournament. A bye would be nice, but the desire was modest — as was the takeaway Saturday.
“We’ve just got to try and get better,” Jones said. “We’re going to enjoy this one today.”