Arkansas plodded down the tunnel into the visitors’ locker room at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center an hour ahead of tipoff bearing the reputation as a poor road squad.
Clawing to stay on the fringes of the NCAA tournament bubble, the Razorbacks did little to shirk their struggles away from Bud Walton Arena in digging a 22-point, first-half hole against LSU.
So a second-half rally was a desperate necessity.
And the Tigers, who have a penchant for tight finishes, nearly let it transpire after allowing Arkansas pull within three points before pitching a shut-out in the final two minutes to hold on for a 65-60 victory Wednesday.
“We kind of got satisfied,” said senior guard Charles Carmouche, who scored a career-high 26 points. “You can’t get satisfied in the league against a team like Arkansas and they way they play.”
Not after Carmouche’s full-court pass against the Arkansas trap was picked off by forward Marshawn Powell.
Or 14 seconds later when guard Mardracus Wade slid a pass across the lane on the right block to a cutting Michael Qualls, who mashed down a two-handed dunk with 1:42 left.
Qualls’ jam cut the lead to 62-60 infused tension for the Tigers (17-9, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) and the 7,891 fans in the PMAC.
“We were right there,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Our guys fought back in the second half. Earlier in the season, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Yet the Razorbacks couldn’t convert off two steals in the final minute, and forward Johnny O’Bryant split two free throws with 2.4 seconds left to seal the victory.
“We knew it would be a hard-fought battle,” Jones said. “We knew Arkansas would continue to fight.”
But LSU, which shot just 29.4 percent in the second half, certainly aided the Razorbacks (17-11, 8-7), who had lost six of seven SEC road games this season.
After leading 45-32 at halftime, LSU committed four of its 18 turnovers, which were converted into 19 points, after stalling a haggard Arkansas offense.
Trailing 49-33, Marshawn Powell, who had 17 points and eight rebounds, notched a layup to start a 9-0 run over the next 2:21 to pull within 49-42 after Qualls stripped guard Malik Morgan and drove the floor for a one-handed dunk.
“It’s important to execute on the offensive end and gets tops on the defensive end and don’t allow yourself to get into too big of a rush,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “It was like we were trying to put them away too quick after halftime. and it backfired on us.”
Wheezing execution offensively didn’t seem a problem early on for LSU, which shot 42.3 percent on the night.
Over five minutes, the Tigers tore off an 18-3 run to build a 23-8 lead with 11:01 left in the first half – a run keyed by 13 points from Carmouche.
The redshirt senior scored the first eight points of the burst and seemed to land a deciding blow to cap it after guard Anthony Hickey forced a steal on Kiko Haydar that led to a loose ball scramble under the rim and a bucket for Carmouche.
“I have always though that he is the ‘X-Factor’ for LSU,” Anderson said. “He had a big game tonight.”
Granted, Carmouche wasn’t keen on dissecting his recent run, a four-game stretch where he has averaged 16.8 points per game and is shooting 66.7 percent.
“I’m just playing basketball,” Carmouche said. “That’s it.”
Andre Stringer noted: “He’s been in the gym, and he’s one of our guys doing a great job thinking off instincts and taking what the defense gives him. It’s no surprise to us.”
Yet the Tigers burst came with Razorbacks guard and leading scorer B.J. Young planted on the bench after a rough start. Limiting the sophomore to four points on 2-of-11 shooting, though, was also Carmouche’s handy work.
Arkansas popped off a 7-0 spurt to pare the lead to 26-18, but the Tigers answered with another 17-5 run over five minutes to take a 45-23 lead with 2:08 left in the first half when Stringer buried a transition 3-pointer at the top of the arc.
“I was disappointed,” Anderson said. “We dug a big hole, and you can’t do anything in a hole.”
The quagmire, though, wasn’t as deep after the Razorbacks pulled within seven points early in the second half, and LSU couldn’t help but admit that it let off the pedal.
“We’ve just got to stay in attack mode,” Hickey said. “We were just running our offense, and we’ve still got to attack the basket and run the score up.”
The task wasn’t helped when forward Johnny O’Bryant picked up his fourth foul with 14:11 left to play, sitting for the next 10 minutes on a night where he scored just five points and grabbed eight rebounds.
“It was tough because he draws a lot of attention inside and get us a bunch of easy looks,” Carmouche said. “Without Johnny down there, we don’t get those.”
Arkansas took advantage, outrebounding LSU 12-5 over the span to generate second and third-possessions to hang with eight points.
Again, Carmouche plugged the gap with a three-point play at 12:59 left to play to expand the margin to 52-42. Two minutes later, he came up with a steal near the right block and pushed into the open floor for a layup and foul on Rashad Madden, knocking down a free throw for a 57-44 lead.
“He did a great job of settling us down when Johnny was out of the game,” Jones said, “getting to the basket and making tough plays, finishing at the rim, getting to the free-throw line.”
Carmouche’s gumption, though, didn’t deter the Razorbacks, who winnowed the lead back to eight points twice over the next five minutes.
At the 4:29 mark, Wade, who finished with 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting, took a bounce from Qualls and drilled a 3-pointer at the top of the arc to slash the lead 61-56.
Eighteen seconds later, O’Bryant returned and at 3:23 split two free throws to extend the advantage back to six points. More importantly, though, he grabbed four of LSU’s final five rebounds to choke off Arkansas second opportunities.
Arkansas press, which helps force turnovers on 25.2 percent of possessions, generated two more steals in the final minute — both off ill-advised, full-court passes from Carmouche and Stringer.
“We just need to make sure our spacing is better and we had a couple of guys running away from the ball that needed to be running back,” Jones said.
Fifteen minutes later, though, Carmouche broached a subject that had been off limits: The Tigers prospects for a postseason bid.
“Now, we’re just growing and showing we’re a tournament-caliber team,” Carmouche said. “When it’s all said and done, we’ll see what happens.”