LSU men’s basketball coach Trent Johnson said he expected Wednesday’s game to be just another “fist fight” in the Southeastern Conference. He was right.
It looked early on like LSU might run Georgia right out of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, but the Bulldogs overcame the initial haymaker, cut the deficit to six by halftime and stayed within single digits most of the way in the second half.
For the Tigers to hang on for the 61-53 victory in their penultimate home game of the regular season, they needed Ralston Turner and Justin Hamilton to make six straight free throws in the final 31.5 seconds.
“We knew they run a lot of similar stuff to us and knew we’d have to just out-execute them,” Hamilton said. “Just go possession by possession, like coach always says, and just grind it out. They’re a really good, physical team. We just had to find a way to win.”
LSU (17-10, 7-6) bumped its winning streak to four with its fifth win in six games, keeping pace with Tennessee for fourth place in the SEC standings. Alabama plays at Arkansas on Thursday night with a chance to recreate a three-way tie.
In all four games during the LSU winning streak, the Tigers have held their opponent below 60 points during regulation, conjuring memories of their defense-inspired, seven-game winning streak late in non-conference play.
This time, however, LSU had to find different ways to get it done on offense.
Georgia (12-15, 3-10) bottled up Hamilton, holding the LSU big man to seven points – matching his season low for points scored. Hamilton iced the win with two late free throws, but he finished in single digits for only the second time in league play.
Meanwhile, point guard Anthony Hickey was mostly ineffective, scoring only two points and dishing out two assists.
Johnny O’Bryant III took up the slack on the inside, scoring 14 points to go with eight rebounds. Andre Stringer stepped up from the outside, scoring 18 points – his most of the SEC season — on 6-of-12 shooting, including a 4-of-9 performance from 3-point range.
O’Bryant hurt Georgia mostly in the first half, putting up nine points in the opening 11 minutes. Stringer did much of the damage in the second, hitting two of his 3-pointers and scoring 12 of his points after intermission.
Hitting seven of 12 shots from the field, Gerald Robinson led Georgia with 17 points.
“I thought we did a really, really good job of keeping our poise,” Johnson said. “Because when that thing got within three, got within four, I think we started to show our fragileness a little bit. Guys started losing their confidence, but we found our way back.”
Buoyed by O”Bryant’s fast start, LSU had the announced crowd of 9,612 on its feet as the Tigers took a 10-0 lead less than three minutes in.
The cushion grew to 19-7 at the 11:05 mark and went back to 12 twice more in the final six minutes of the half. But Georgia went on a 10-4 run going into halftime, getting within 29-23 on Robinson’s floater with two seconds left.
The rest of the way, the Tigers couldn’t shake free.
Georgia entered Wednesday leading only last-place South Carolina in the league standings, but showed the same kind of peskiness it used to upset Mississippi State in Starkville earlier this month.
“We threw the first couple of punches,” O’Bryant said. “We came out a little more aggressive — attacking them and going at them. Then our shots stopped falling. Georgia started getting more aggressive and started making plays.”
Georgia hung around so long in part because LSU missed 12 of its first 23 shots from the free-throw line. The Bulldogs couldn’t close the comeback, ultimately, for the opposite reason.
With the Tigers nursing a six-point lead, O’Bryant made the second of two free throws with 1:28 left.
Turner made four more foul shots in the final 31.5 secfonds, the first two for a 57-51 lead and the final two to make it 59-53. Hamilton then made two more with 17 seconds left for the final margin.
“Coming into the game,” Hamilton said, “we knew it was going to be a tight game and we were going to have to make some free throws. At the end, we just needed to calm down, take our time and knock down those free throws.”
LSU goes for its fifth straight win Saturday at Ole Miss, then returns home to face Tennessee on Wednesday.