CHARLESTON, S.C. - Anthony Hickey made sure he and LSU would finish this one strong.
The freshman point guard was held scoreless in the second half of his team’s loss to Northwestern to open the Charleston Classic on Thursday. So when LSU was locked in another tight contest with Western Kentucky, Hickey gave the Tigers exactly what they needed to pull away for a 76-57 victory on Friday.
Justin Hamilton had 18 points and nine rebounds and Hickey 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The Tigers (2-2) broke a two-game losing skid and will face Georgia Tech, a 73-60 winner over Virginia Commonwealth, at 1:30 p.m Sunday for fifth place in the eight-team tournament at TD Arena. And they’ll need Hickey to do exactly what he did against Western Kentucky (1-3).
LSU coach Trent Johnson said Hickey played under control, slowing things down at the right times so the Southeastern Conference team could play off its height advantage over the Sun Belt Conference opponent.
Hamilton, a seven-foot Iowa State transfer, was the biggest beneficiary with his career-best 17 points. And Johnson was so pleased, he went down the bench in the final minute to congratulate Hickey’s showing.
“Basically, I just told him good job running the team,” Johnson said.
Hickey said there’s even more ahead. The Tigers, who had lost to Coastal Carolina and Northwestern this week on their South Carolina trip, put an emphasis on finishing games, something that did not happen in those losses. Johnson re-emphasized that at halftime and the Tigers responded.
Ahead 40-38 at the break, LSU scored the first nine points of the half. Storm Warren hit two jumpers, Hamilton had two foul shots - he was 8 of 8 from the free throw line for the game - and Hickey nailed a 3-pointer for a 49-38 lead with 16:34 remaining. When Western Kentucky’s Kevin Kaspar responded with a 3 of his own, Hickey drove the lane for a bucket to put LSU up 51-41.
“As a point guard, I just tried to stay solid and be a leader out there,” Hickey said. “I penetrated a little bit at the start of the half and got Storm (Warren) going, and everything started falling in place. Justin hit some big shots, and we all played together.”
The Hilltoppers closed to 51-45 before going nearly eight minutes without scoring. The Tigers took advantage, pushing the lead to 20 points before Western Kentucky scored again.
With LSU up 67-45 with 7:54 to play, WKU never got closer than 17 the rest of the way.
“We had a tough start early on,” Hickey said. “We had to find our focus.”
The 5-foot-11 Hickey certainly did. He made seven of his 13 shots and added three steals as LSU ended its early season funk.
Hilltoppers coach Ken McDonald said his players shrunk at times when pushed by LSU.
“That’s just something we’ve got to get over with the physical battle,” he said. “We fought hard and we’re getting better.”
Turnovers also didn’t help. Western Kentucky committed 20 and, after going 14 of 14 on foul shots in the first half, were just 4 of 13 the rest of the way.
“Credit LSU for turning the pressure up, we’ve just got to handle it better,” he said.
The game opened strangely with Western being assessed a technical foul, because its starting lineup was not in the official scorebook the required 10 minutes before tipoff. McDonald earned a technical of his own moments later on LSU’s first possession when no foul was called on a player collision near the top of the key. Hamilton made all four free throws to put LSU up 4-0 less than 20 seconds in.
“I guess coach Johnson thought it was important to begin the game with a technical,” McDonald said. “That’s on him.”
The Tigers had their own troubles scoring in the first half, going 0 of 8 from the floor to start until Ralston Turner’s 3-pointer with 12:17 ended the drought.
The teams combined for more turnovers than points - 10 to 7 - in the opening five minutes. They finished the half with 24 turnovers (12 apiece) and three technicals after LSU’s Malcolm White earned one midway through the period.
Both clubs found their stride as the game continued. Turner’s 3-pointer with 2:52 gave LSU a 33-31 lead and the Tigers went to the locker room up 40-38.
“That’s our third game in four days so we were a little tired,” said LSU coach Trent Johnson.
“I thought our bench did a good job. We got some good contributions from Chris Bass, Malcolm White, John Isaac, Eddie Ludwig, Jalen Courtney. I thought all those guys did a good job coming off the bench giving us some energy. Defensively, we went to a 2-3 zone and I think that took (WKU) out of rhythm a little bit. That’s a team that is explosive, quick and plays extremely hard and physical. That’s a good win for us.”
Bass, who didn’t play against Northwestern, was on the floor for 15 minutes with three points and three assists, while White played 12 minutes with six points. Isaac had three points in 19 minutes as all 12 players played in the game. Warren finished with nine points and seven rebounds.
The Tigers will have an 11 a.m. practice at The Citadel on Saturday in preparation for the final day of the event Sunday.
A university news release contributed to this report.