FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — It’s hard to believe the LSU basketball team sat atop the Southeastern Conference standings just 16 days ago.
In this case, two weeks and two days seem like ages ago.
Indeed, since Fat Tuesday morning, when the 8-2 Tigers were rocking along having won six of its past seven conference games to take a one-game lead over three other teams, a lot has happened.
A whole lot, most of it bad for LSU.
With Tuesday night’s 85-65 loss at Arkansas, its third double-digit loss in SEC play since Feb. 10, LSU fell into a fourth-place tie with only three regular-season games remaining to try to figure things out.
The same problems that cropped up in so many games in that 16-day span were present again in the game at Arkansas, which LSU was still somehow in early in the second half despite being three players down — the most significant absence, of course, being second-leading scorer Keith Hornsby.
But after trailing by four points with 16:08 to play, everything went south in a hurry for the Tigers.
Woeful shooting from the guards, poor defense in the paint, a deficiency in rebounding, turnovers — and giving up points on turnovers — all added up to LSU’s third conference loss in seven days.
It’s the first time the Tigers have dropped three in a row in league play since coach Johnny Jones’ first season in 2013 when he opened his SEC schedule with losses to Auburn, Florida and South Carolina.
The best thing that came out of their latest loss, which was another blow to their flickering NCAA tournament aspirations, was their play in the first 24 minutes without an injured Hornsby and reserve big men Aaron Epps and Elbert Robinson — who were both ill.
Jones’ team was down by nine points in the first half, but battled back to trail by just two (34-32) at halftime.
“I thought we were connected … I thought we played extremely hard,” Jones said of the first half. “I thought we were there on the catch (defensively). We didn’t allow their post guys to get comfortable down on the block.”
That changed quickly in the second half when Arkansas bigs Moses Kingsley and Trey Thompson started taking advantage inside.
Kingsley and Thompson combined to go 12-of-17 from the field in helping their team to a huge 48-20 edge in paint points — including 26-10 in the second half.
“In the second half, I thought Arkansas did a good job of having their way — getting post touches and scoring the ball well inside,” Jones said.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson challenged Kingsley, who was averaging 16.1 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, to go inside in the second half and challenge LSU’s Craig Victor and Ben Simmons.
When he did, the Razorbacks took off.
“Coach was not happy with me after the first half,” Kingsley said. “He said I wasn’t aggressive. So that’s what I tried to do in the second half. When they went to the double team, I tried to give it to Trey or kick it out.”
After being held to 11 points in a 76-74 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge on Jan. 16, Kingsley went for 21 Tuesday night — 17 coming in the decisive second half. Thompson had 11 of his career-high 13 points after the break.
“I don’t know, he just wanted it more,” Simmons said when asked about the difference in Kingsley in the two games.
LSU’s perimeter defense was lacking as well, with Arkansas going 5-of-11 from 3-point range and 19-of-30 overall in the second half.
On the other hand, LSU’s guards were 10-of-39 from the field with Antonio Blakeney having the most success in going 7-of-19. Simmons and Victor were 10-of-17, which should have been enough to kept the Tigers afloat until they were outscored 51-33 in the second half.
“We knew we made some mistakes in the first half, so we were just trying to go in to the second half and correct them,” Blakeney said, “and we didn’t.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.