For the second time in as many games, in a span of 72 hours, the LSU basketball team turned what appeared to be a runaway win into a nail-biter Tuesday night.
On Saturday night, it was an 18-point second-half lead that shrunk to two points on three occasions before LSU managed to secure a 96-91 victory against Florida.
Tuesday night was more of the same. Missouri bounced back from a 46-24 first-half drubbing to pull within three points with less than five minutes left, throwing a scare into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center crowd.
LSU was able to hang on against the Southeastern Conference’s cellar-dwellers and post an 80-71 victory after the outcome was in doubt as late as the 2:32 mark before Ben Simmons knocked down six consecutive free throws to finish off Missouri.
That LSU couldn’t put Missouri away in blowout fashion on Senior Night was the bad news.
The good news is LSU, which is trying to get back into the NCAA tournament conversation, remained just a game behind league co-leaders Texas A&M and Kentucky after Missouri’s rally came up short.
The better news for LSU (18-12, 11-6 SEC) is the win gave the Tigers some clarity going into the regular-season finale Saturday at Kentucky (22-8, 12-5).
Because LSU is still within a game of the conference lead in a tight race for the top five spots, the Tigers can finish anywhere from a tie for first place to fifth when the regular season concludes Saturday.
The victory over Missouri guaranteed that LSU, which is tied with Vanderbilt for third place a half-game ahead of South Carolina, will be no lower than the No. 5 seed for the SEC tournament that begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee.
South Carolina can make it a three-way tie for third if it can defeat Georgia on Thursday night.
LSU will know exactly where it stands before its 1 p.m. Saturday tipoff against Kentucky as the Tigers continue their quest for a top-four seed and a double-bye into the quarterfinals.
If Texas A&M beats Vanderbilt in a game that begins at 11 a.m. Saturday in College Station, LSU will get one of the coveted double-byes and could even be the second or third seed.
If Vanderbilt defeats Texas A&M, things would get a little stickier for LSU.
It would need to upend Kentucky on Senior Day in Rupp Arena and get some help from Arkansas against South Carolina on Saturday if Georgia doesn’t beat Carolina on Thursday night.
Having a chance to perhaps play for a share of the regular-season title was a plus for LSU in coach Johnny Jones’ eyes after surviving against Missouri.
“If you told me back in November that 17 games into our (SEC) schedule we would have a chance to tie or win a conference championship, certainly we’d be excited about that with the youthfulness of our team and the guys we lost last year,” Jones said. “Our league is a lot tougher this year. … Very competitive.”
Missouri, which last month defeated a South Carolina team that’s still in the hunt for a share of the league crown and a top-four seed for next week’s tournament, helped reiterate that Tuesday night.
“In the second half, you have to commend Missouri and what a great job they did of coming out and executing their offense, making plays,” Jones said.
“We did not do a great job on the offensive end taking care of the basketball. We were a little loose early on, and then, we were not knocking down shots.
“I’m pleased we were able to finish the game the right way and execute down the stretch in the last four minutes, knocking down free throws and making shots at the end. We have to continue to work in those areas.”
Still, Jones and his players know LSU will have to play much better than it did against Florida and Missouri to somehow pull off a road win Saturday.
“We have a great opportunity right now to go there and get a win,” Simmons said after putting up 22 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. “We have a chance to get the SEC title and make the NCAA tournament.
“Hopefully, we can do well in that. We have a long way to go still.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.