After upset loss to Alabama, LSU back in must-win mode _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU forward Ben Simmons (25) drives past Alabama forward Michael Kessens (3) in the second half, Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at LSU's PMAC in Baton Rouge, La.

Tim Quarterman stared up at the ceiling as he toed the side of the free-throw lane in the closing moments of Wednesday’s 76-69 loss to Alabama.

Perhaps he was thinking of the Tigers’ opportunities missed, especially around the basket, bounce after maddening bounce off the rims. Maybe he was watching LSU’s share of first place in the Southeastern Conference and the Tigers’ NCAA tournament dreams retreat into the distance.

The Tigers’ hopes for a championship or a ticket to March Madness haven’t evaporated. Not by a long shot. LSU is still right there on Kentucky’s rear bumper and one side or another of the NCAA bubble depending on whose projections you consult.

One thing is certain: after building a strong head of momentum with four straight SEC wins — interrupted only by a two-point loss to then No. 1 Oklahoma — the Tigers have now dropped two of their last three and find themselves right back in must-win mode.

It looked as though an LSU team that had some chemistry to work on through the first half of the season has tipped the experiment on its side once again.

If I didn’t know better, I’d have said last fall’s movie “Our Brand is Crisis” was the title for this season’s LSU highlight film.

“It’s frustrating if you care, if you want to win,” senior guard Keith Hornsby said. “Our lack of consistency is frustrating, but it does happen.”

You don’t have to be a latter-day John Wooden to figure out why LSU dropped its first SEC home game of the season against Bama. The Tigers were outshot 46.3 percent to 38.6 percent. They were outrebounded 39-34. They missed 15 of 35 second-half free throws, were outscored in the paint 26-20 and off the bench 23-2.

And the allowed the other team’s best player to go off once again. This time it was Retin Obasohan, who flashed to the basket and went 11-for-11 at the free-throw line for a career-high 35 points.

Oh, the Buddy Hield of it all.

LSU’s ace, Ben Simmons, tallied his 18th double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds). But Simmons was an icy 10-of-19 at the free-throw line, a disturbing stat perhaps explained by the fact he was playing with his left ring finger (on his shooting hand) heavily taped up. Coach Johnny Jones said Simmons, who didn’t attend Thursday’s interview session, injured it a couple of games earlier but couldn’t be more specific.

The injury didn’t keep Simmons from returning to the court after the game and shooting a bushel basket of free throws. Same for Hornsby. You can applaud the effort at the same time scratching your head to try to figure out what to expect from these Tigers next.

Some smart alec sports columnist tried earlier this week to handicap LSU’s last six games, predicting a win in the Alabama game en route to a 4-2 finish and a 20-win season. Handicapping LSU’s last five games is a fool’s errand given the Tigers’ ability to beat any team they play (winning at Kentucky is a tall task considering how the Wildcats are playing now) and lose to just about anyone they face.

A 12-6 conference record and a win in the SEC tournament figures to get LSU an NCAA invite. But to get to 12-6, the Tigers will now have to win at least one road game, starting with Saturday’s game at Tennessee (4:30 p.m., ESPNU) or Tuesday at Arkansas or March 5 at Kentucky. Then LSU has to hold serve at home against Florida and Missouri.

“It’s about opportunities,” Hornsby said, “and we have a great one Saturday.”

It’s also a crisis, but not an impossible task. Impossible is trying to figure the future of this LSU team from its past results or promises to try to defend better or play with more intensity.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.