AMHERST, Mass. — In a contest between two college basketball teams on the rise, it was the LSU Tigers who suffered the setback.
Having to play catchup nearly the entire game, the Tigers chased but never caught Massachusetts, falling 92-90 Tuesday in their season opener at the Mullins Center.
UMass (2-0) and LSU (0-1) garnered votes in the top 25 polls this week, and the Minutemen will likely move into the top 25 with a win Sunday against Youngstown State.
“We played a very experienced basketball team on the road in the first game of the season, and I thought our guys passed the test in a lot of areas,’’ LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “Unfortunately the score wasn’t to our liking at the end, but I thought a lot of positive things happened.
“We were challenged today, and that’s something that we needed, and it’s something that we can grow from,” Jones added.
The Tigers held a 3-0 lead in the opening minutes but never led after that. LSU trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half, but Anthony Hickey (16 points), Andre Stringer (21 points) and Johnny O’Bryant III (23 points, 11 rebounds) made plays to keep it close.
“That was fun, that was a good college basketball game,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “We played well, and we showed we were a little more mature than we have been in the past when teams make a run at us.’’
The first 20 minutes of the Tigers’ season saw a little bit of everything thrown their way. The new hand-check rules allowed O’Bryant easier access to the rim. But on the flip side, the LSU defense found itself on the wrong side of 33 first-half fouls between the two teams.
O’Bryant picked up his third foul — and the 19th for the team — with 1:11 left in the first half.
The 27 first-half free-throw attempts by UMass, of which 19 were successful, can easily be declared the reason why the Tigers trailed 49-45 at halftime.
In fact, LSU’s only lead in the half came when Tim Quarterman opened the scoring with a 3-pointer for a 3-0 lead. The freshman guard from Savannah, Ga., got the starting nod over Hickey.
O’Bryant scored 14 first-half points, but UMass was able to use four different players to spread out the foul trouble and keep starter Cady Lalanne fresh for the second half.
Stringer fulfilled his role on offense as well, as did Jordan Mickey, but three against five doesn’t work.
UMass, led by the as-good-as-advertised Chaz Williams with 17 points, was able to spread out its offense and make it difficult for the Tigers on defense.
And then there was the foul trouble. O’Bryant, John Odo and Malik Morgan all picked up three first-half fouls, which shortened the LSU bench and extended the scoring of the Minutemen.
LSU also lost starter Jarell Martin in the first minute of the game with an ankle injury, forcing Jones to use various new combinations and putting pressure on the freshman Mickey to produce, which he did.
“Jordan did a lot, protecting the rim,” O’Bryant said. “Jarell goes down, and (Mickey stepped up).’’
Despite the injury and the fouls, the Tigers continued to claw back into the game in the second half. A Hickey 3-pointer with 10:14 remaining cut the UMass lead to 73-72.
That run came during a stretch in which O’Bryant III was on the bench with four fouls. He returned with 5:26 left and the Tigers down seven.
UMass led 88-80 after a floating layup by Williams (24 points) with 1:20 to play. O’Bryant made a pair of free throws, and Malik Morgan made one of two foul shots.
Morgan then stole the ball and set up Stringer for the layup to make it 88-85. But Sampson Carter (17 points) was perfect from the foul line in the final seconds to keep it a two-possession game, making Hickey’s 3-pointer at the buzzer meaningless.
Mickey finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds, as well as five blocked shots for LSU, which next plays Saturday in its home opener against Northwestern State.