GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Donovan decided 61 second-half seconds Saturday were a large enough sample to conclude Florida needed to stop toying with its prey.
Or, at the very least, the coach was unaware of what a desperate, purple-clad LSU might be capable of after his Gators led by 16 points at halftime.
Until LSU guard Anthony Hickey arced in a deep 3-pointer to whittle the Tigers’ deficit to 13.
A second later, there was Donovan, firmly lecturing the nation’s No. 1 team like a calculus teacher chiding pupils for not living up to its ruthlessly precise potential.
Poof: A 9-0 run over the next two minutes led to a 52-30 lead — one that ballooned to 29 at one point.
Ballgame and, for the third time in 12 months, LSU was chomped and dragged into the Gators’ death spiral.
Say this for Johnny Jones’ bunch: They aren’t on the receiving end of many blowouts. Frustrating as a seven-game road losing streak might be, the second-year coach isn’t entirely wrong in suggesting the Tigers are simply desperate for a breakthrough — an injection of confidence knocking off Vanderbilt this Thursday might offer.
Let’s fact-check Jones’ thinking.
Before Saturday’s beating skewed the numbers, LSU had never gone to the locker room in a hostile building trailing by more than 13 points. The average halftime deficit was a little over three — a lone possession. In one of those games, at Alabama, the Tigers clawed back from 19 points down to take a three-point lead with six minutes left.
Basically, with five minutes left, Jones’ group is still lurking. Over nine road games before visiting Florida, the Tigers’ average margin at the start of crunch time is in their favor — 0.22 points, to be exact. And you might be heartened — or infuriated — to know that LSU led six times.
A year ago, that average margin in the waning minutes was minus-4.7 points. So the Tigers have been on the cusp of displaying a trait that teams who get an invite to March Madness possess: able to contend in another team’s gym.
Closing out those games, however, is the hump LSU players keep alluding to when asked about road woes.
In the O’Connell Center, they simply encountered a roster packed with the right blend of elite talent — the Gators have a McDonald’s All-American in point guard Kasey Hill platooning off the bench — and a veteran quartet accustomed to squelching upsets before they take root.
And, to be fair, the way Saturday unfolded wasn’t unexpected.
Yes, the Gators looked a tad weary and rickety over the three games before dispatching LSU. They knocked off struggling Auburn and middling Ole Miss and Vanderbilt by a combined 12 points.
But when LSU’s season ends, a review won’t zero in on whiffing when the Tigers — relegated to the back of the SEC in terms of the NCAA tournament bubble — desperately needed a quality win.
Instead, teeth should be gnashed and ground into dust over defeats at Ole Miss, Bama and Kentucky, the last one on a nausea-inducing stickback with 3.9 seconds left. And that was only made worse when Arkansas waltzed into Rupp Arena five days later and snagged the season sweep that LSU bobbled.
In the cruel game of hindsight, LSU could be 5-5 away from the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. They might have sat at 20-8 overall and 11-5 in the SEC entering the final week, tied with the Wildcats for second in the standings. The Tigers likely would be worrying about improving their seeding for the NCAA tournament.
Now the Razorbacks, whose RPI sits at 57 and sport a 9-6 record against the RPI top 100, are squeezing into the field as a No. 11 seed, according to the latest projection by CBS’ Jerry Palm.
LSU, which is seven spots behind the Hogs in the RPI, is clearly on a path toward the NIT — a reward that would see the Tigers going on the road again because the women’s team is hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
An advocate on retainer for the devil would counter that if LSU’s defense, particularly its glaring struggles to defend the 3-point line, had put up more resistance, the Tigers wouldn’t be in this position.
My reply: Home teams win 70 percent of the time. If you’re leading with five minutes to go — or inside of two minutes, as LSU did at Ole Miss and Bama — then you treat it as found money and scram with your loot.
You could argue that the Tigers treat road wins like a dude who picks up a $50 bill off the floor at Starbucks, hems and haws, then hands it back over to the owner before he makes it to his car with a scone and latte. Noble indeed, but you’re still $50 poorer.
So now comes a trek to Nashville. Vanderbilt was shelled by 38 points at Tennessee on Saturday. The Commodores’ seven scholarship players might finally be wobbling.
A victory won’t do anything to change the Tigers’ NCAA circumstances. They’ll still need to hang around into the weekend at the SEC tournament to elbow their way back into bubble talk.
Knocking off haggard Vandy, though, might be enough to convince the Tigers they’re up to the task.