NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Four of the first five games in Southeastern Conference play were grinders for the LSU men’s basketball team.
With the exception of an 18-point bashing of Florida in Gainesville on Tuesday night, the Tigers have had to go to the wire the other four times with two of them going to overtime — one in double-overtime.
You can add Saturday night’s game with Vanderbilt to the list of thrillers.
Try as it might, LSU could not get over the hump and grab the lead for a 25-minute stretch late in the first half and the second period but still managed to pull out a 79-75 overtime win in Memorial Gymnasium.
LSU (15-4, 4-2 SEC) notched a third consecutive road victory in league play when forward Jarell Martin pulled down a rebound with 3.6 seconds left in overtime, was fouled and drained two free throws to give his team an insurmountable four-point lead.
The two free throws, which came at the end of an uncharacteristically poor shooting night from the line for LSU, helped them slip past Vanderbilt (11-8, 1-5 SEC) and finally allowed coach Johnny Jones to exhale.
“You know you need both of those because they’re a great, high-volume 3-point shooting team … and high percentage as well,” Jones said. “We knew we needed to get both of them down. After the second one went in, I felt better at that time about the outcome.”
That’s because after LSU guard Tim Quarterman gave his team a 77-73 lead with two free throws at the 1:17 mark of the overtime period, he missed a pair with 19 seconds to play that would have restored the Tigers’ four-point lead after Vanderbilt’s Luke Kornet cut it to two with 20 seconds remaining.
When Martin stepped to the line, LSU was only 11-of-21 for the game.
But he calmly dropped in both to help the Tigers escape with another close win. It was the fifth time in their six league games that it was decided by seven points or fewer.
“There was a lot of pressure on me. … We struggled shooting free throws in the game and weren’t shooting it well,” Martin, a 73.2 percent shooter from the line, said. “But I knew how important it was to make those last free throws. I had confidence in myself and knocked them down.”
Seconds earlier, Martin grabbed a rebound after Vanderbilt’s Shelton Mitchell put up a shot that could have tied the game when Quarterman failed to ice the win at the line.
“Before we went out there (during a timeout), I told my teammates, ‘If we can’t get the rebound, just tip it out,’” he said. “I found my way to get to the rebound and grabbed it and told myself, ‘I ain’t kicking this one out.’ I had that much confidence in myself to hit the free throws.”
Martin’s two clutch free throws gave him 19 points to go with 12 rebounds. He was one of five players in double figures for the Tigers as Jordan Mickey had a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds.
Quarterman added 12 points, while Keith Hornsby had 11 and Jalyn Patterson 10.
Patterson had two huge 3-pointers in the second half to help LSU come back from a six-point deficit midway through the second half; Hornsby had one with 3:25 remaining in regulation that trimmed Vanderbilt’s four-point lead to one at 67-66.
The Tigers survived a big night from Kornet, who had 16 points in the first half and 22 overall.
Guard Wade Baldwin IV had 18 points on 4-of-4 from beyond the 3-point line and Baton Rouge native Damian Jones chipped in with 13 despite being saddled with foul trouble.
“I thought in the second half our guys settled in and played much better,” Johnny Jones said. “We executed on the offensive end and we were fortunate to get the game into overtime and be able to execute and win down the stretch.”
LSU scored the first four points of overtime as Quarterman drove the lane for a basket and Martin got a basket on a fast-break opportunity — helping the Tigers outscore the Commodores 10-6 in the extra period.
“In overtime, we wanted to get good shots, and we came down and hit a couple,” Quarterman said. “We played good defense, got some rebounds and finally put it away with free throws.”
“It’s hard and you have to put a lot into it,” Jones said. “We talked before the game how deep we would have to dig for this game — especially for this game to get to overtime — and we had to continue to play extremely hard to execute against a good solid defensive team. It was a grind game for us.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.