Nail-biters. Heartbreakers. Near-misses.
No matter what you call them, they’re all the same to the LSU basketball team.
One by one, they’re threatening to put a damper on the Tigers’ once-promising season as the opportunities start to dwindle.
As a result, the Tigers have their work cut out for them in the final seven Southeastern Conference games to be played out over the next 3½ weeks.
With three losses in its past four games, topped by Tuesday night’s cruel 71-69 setback to top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky, LSU will have to get back on track in a hurry to remain in the hunt for the school’s first NCAA tournament berth in six seasons.
While there’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of in coming up short against a Kentucky team that’s heavily favored to win the NCAA title, a chance to spring a resume-boosting upset slipped through LSU’s fingers in the final minutes in an electric Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
While Tuesday night’s loss wasn’t like earlier ones to Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri — teams looking up at the rest of the conference — it hurt just the same for the Tigers.
Yet, they were different in that LSU managed to take Kentucky to the wire after losing to three teams that have combined for an 8-24 conference record — three fewer wins than the Wildcats have.
If LSU played that way every night, the Tigers, who led for 21½ minutes to the Wildcats’ 15½, would be in much better shape even though they can still make something of their season.
“I thought our guys played extremely hard,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “They showed that we can come out and play with that kind of intensity level throughout the game against the number one team in the country, a team sitting at 23-0 (going into the game).
“We’ve battled through some tough games this year and put ourselves in position to have a shot to win it late. If you play that way throughout, then some good things can happen for you.”
Despite their play, which included shooting 53.8 percent from the field in the second half against the SEC leader in scoring defense and field-goal defense, they came up short when Keith Hornsby’s 3-point shot missed in the closing seconds.
LSU had just nine turnovers — the second-fewest this season — and produced an impressive 16-0 run in the second half that gave them a chance at a monumental upset in front of an excited crowd.
“We’re constantly growing, and I feel like we took some positive steps tonight,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, we just came up a little bit short on the scoreboard.”
While there are no such things as moral victories in Jones’ book, his team may still take something out of the gallant tooth-and-nail fight it waged Tuesday night.
“This just shows how close we are to being a great team,” guard Josh Gray said.
“It shows we can compete with the best teams in the nation.”
“We know that we can compete with, and possibly beat, anybody,” Hornsby said. “They had to really fight to get out of here. We have some road games left, so we have to keep playing with this same ferocity.”
With a much-anticipated matchup against Kentucky now out of the way, LSU can focus on the final seven regular-season games that will likely determine their postseason fate.
A two-game road trip to Tennessee on Saturday and Texas A&M on Tuesday will be big, but so are their final five games against Florida, Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee again and Arkansas.
Of that group, only Auburn had a losing record in the conference going into this week’s play.
The Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Arkansas games will be especially important because they were all ahead of LSU in the updated NCAA and ESPN.com rating percentage index (RPI) on Wednesday.
The bottom line is that LSU, which is 6-5 in the league, will likely have to win five of those seven games and possibly one or two in the SEC tournament to be in the NCAA tournament discussion.
“All of them are really important,” Jones said. “Each of them has their own merit of importance, and our next one against Tennessee is a huge one for us. It’s on the road and the next opportunity against a really good basketball team to go out there and challenge.
“For us to get to where we’re trying to go, we need to make sure that we win our share of those games.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.