The question has lingered for much of the season: Is Anthony Hickey comfortable being the silent maestro instead of filling up the scoring column for LSU?
Not really, actually.
The junior’s ego isn’t slighted by settling in and simply keeping the gears and cogs moving for an overhauled and youth-infused roster.
On Saturday, though, Hickey decided the second half of an 87-80 victory against Auburn in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center might be the appropriate time to reprise his former role.
On the strength of five 3-pointers, including a deep 3 at the top of the arc that spurred a decisive 12-3 run midway through the second half, he racked up 17 points as LSU (15-7, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) rallied past Auburn (11-10, 3-7).
Hickey doesn’t intend it to be a one-off performance down the stretch, either.
“I’ve got to do it more,” he said.
A man more than willing to let Hickey handle some of the load is junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III, who faces double teams most nights.
He would love for Hickey and fellow guard Andre Stringer to make opponents pay for the extra attention sent to him in the lane.
“We are a great team when everyone is clicking,” said O’Bryant, who notched another double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds. “When everyone is clicking and sharing the ball and guys are playing defense, we can be one of those top teams.”
The focal point of the Tigers offense has shifted so much to the interior that it’s hard to remember Hickey and Stringer carrying LSU in the season’s early stages. Yet Hickey conjured a clear reminder with his 3-pointer at the 11:31 mark that inched LSU’s lead to 55-48 and started the definitive run.
Two trips and 90 seconds later, Stringer, who had 18 points on 3-of-9 shooting off the bench, buried a 3 of his own from the right wing for an 11-point lead that reached 64-51 when Stringer split a pair of free throws with 8:11 left.
“It was up to us to get our feet set, stay locked in and hit open shots,” Stringer said. “We did a great job hitting open jump shots for the most part tonight. It makes it hard to take away the post when you’re hitting jumpers.”
Trailing 38-35 early in the second half, LSU, which shot 45.6 percent, wrestled away control behind a 10-0 run started by a three-point play from O’Bryant at 18:39. But it was a kickout from the forward at the elbow to Hickey for an open 3-pointer on the right wing and a five-point lead that seemed to give LSU confidence.
“They’re both very capable,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of his veteran guards. “We have some passing options for passing out of the double teams, and those guys have done a good job executing when they’d done that.”
When Jordan Mickey, who added 14 points and 10 rebounds, swished two free throws, the Tigers led Auburn 45-38 with 15:54 to go and never felt pressed until the waning minutes, when Auburn twice cut its deficit to five points.
Sure, there were blemishes. Again LSU was outscored in the lane, this time to the tune of 42-26, and its 15 turnovers fueled 22 points for Auburn. Yet the Tigers were able to knock down enough 3-pointers (8 of 21) and went 27-of-38 at the line.
Early on, LSU appeared woozy after the spill it took Thursday night at Georgia.
Auburn jumped to an 11-3 lead in the first five minutes. LSU replied with a 15-4 salvo — keyed by eight points from Jarrell Martin — to take an 18-15 lead on an O’Bryant jumper along the baseline.
Auburn guard Chris Denson, who finished with 29 points on 11-of-23 shooting, seemed poise to doom LSU alone. The senior guard reeled off 19 first-half points, including 13 of Auburn’s final 18 points, capping it with a wheeling drive from the left wing for a reverse layup that sent Auburn to halftime ahead 33-32.
“He uses his left hand to find driving lines,” Jones said. “They’ve done a great job making sure they strip the weak-side help, and it’s tough to get to the rim to block shots.”
Left with little resort, Jones switched between man and zone defenses in the second half — a move that held Denson scoreless for the first seven minutes — and relied on the Tigers’ size to protect the rim. The choice of who to deploy on Denson: Hickey.
“I just tried to use my quickness and was able to slow him down a little bit,” Hickey said. “He had some empty possessions, and that helped the team a little a bit.”
And it let LSU avoid a loss to the No. 159 squad in the RPI — a defeat that likely would have been mortal for the Tigers’ NCAA tournament hopes.
“We just needed the win, man,” O’Bryant said. “That’s the thing about our team: We’re always pushing on, and guys never get satisfied with wins and never get down on losses.”
But they’re not a squad ignorant about what it has to do next, Wednesday night at Texas A&M.
“We’ve got to get the win,” O’Bryant said. “At this point, every team knows it’s must-win.”
Note: LSU sophomore guard Malik Morgan suffered an injury to his right knee when it buckled beneath him while he drove for a layup with less than three minutes to go in the second half. Morgan, averaging 4.4 points and 3.1 rebounds, was helped off the floor by trainers, and Jones said the prognosis for the New Orleans native was “not good.”