The LSU Tigers seemed to be waiting for something.
Waiting for someone on the team — someone else, apparently — to take over the game.
Waiting to see if their Powerball numbers hit.
Waiting for President Obama to show up and invite everyone back to Air Force One for cheeseburgers.
As much was at stake for LSU, as much as its season was at risk of sinking somewhere below the 10th parallel, it took forever for the Tigers to show some spark. Some sign that this wasn’t just a bunch of guys getting together over at the rec center across campus for a pick up game.
Ole Miss’ Stefan Moody brought it early and all night. Bent on giving LSU the blues, the generously listed 5-foot-10 jumping jack was pouring in 3-pointers from all over the court and parading to the free-throw line. He went all Marshall Henderson on the Tigers, finishing with 33 points.
Predictably, the game started to turn LSU’s way with anger over a second-half call that went against the Tigers. A loose ball pinballed out of bounds, with an Ole Miss player undercutting Ben Simmons as the ball bounced across the end line at the student’s end.
The Rebels were awarded possession. An incensed roar went up from the stands.
But it wasn’t on this night for LSU’s freshman superstar to lead the Tigers to their eventual 90-81 victory. Simmons seemed to struggle at time to find the accelerator. That he finished with 15 points, five rebounds and seven assists, and it felt like something of a disappointment, is testament to his massive talent and outsized expectations.
Instead it was a pair of Tigers made to come off the bench who did the damage over the game’s final 10-plus minutes.
Johnny Jones didn’t start Tim Quarterman or Antonio Blakeney in this one, going instead with Josh Gray and Jayln Patterson as reward for their practice enenergy.
But to say neither Quarterman nor Blakeney distinguished themselves in Saturday’s frustrating 68-62 loss at Florida would be kind. Blakeney finished with seven points on 2-of-7 shooting, the deft touch the freshman had early in the season continuing to elude him. And Quarterman, who delivered 21 points in LSU’s biggest win of the year, 85-67 over Kentucky back on Jan. 5, scored just three points going 1-of-6 from the field.
But both played a huge role in this one. Quarterman finished with 14 points, 13 of them in a frenzied final 10 ½ minutes as he calmly splashed 3-pointer after 3-pointer in a cannonade to match the artillery Moody flashed at the other end.
Blakeney scored 10 of his 15 points (3-of-5 from the field) in the same stretch, the biggest shot a 3-pointer to answer a driving Moody two from right in front of the LSU bench. The shot gave the Tigers an 83-78 lead with 2:29 left, led the pumped up Blakeney to get a chest bump from a teammate on the way back up court, and perhaps chipped the ice that has been accumulating on his game. It was the first time Blakeney shot over 50 percent in a game since Dec. 19 against Oral Roberts. As a team, LSU canned a torrid 17-of-24 second-half shots.
There’s a huge difference between 2-2 in conference and 3-1 as LSU is now (10-6 overall), especially with upstart Arkansas (also 3-1 in SEC play) coming to town Saturday night. The margin for LSU’s NCAA tournament hopes are already thin if not completely evaporated, all the more necessary for the Tigers to show Kentucky-like determination for 40 minutes instead of the last 10 or 12.
“It’s not about who starts the game,” Quarterman said afterward, “it’s about who finishes.”
LSU’s finish was better. Could it be the restart of something big?
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.