As strange as it may seem, two disappointing losses early in Southeastern Conference play may have served the LSU basketball team well.
It didn’t help them in the league standings, of course, but shocking setbacks at Missouri and at home against Texas A&M might have instilled some mental toughness in the Tigers — especially in the closing minutes of games.
In a conference season that’s seen six of its seven league games decided by an average of 4.5 points, LSU has won four in nail-biting fashion — most recently a 64-58 comeback win against South Carolina.
While they’re providing more than a few harrowing moments for coach Johnny Jones and fans, LSU players are producing in the clutch more often than not going into Saturday’s 1 p.m. game with Mississippi State in Starkville.
To be sure, they’re thriving on the late-game heroics.
“It’s fun … it’s fun,” guard Josh Gray said after scoring six of his seven points in the final three minutes, sparking a frantic closing 12-2 run that helped overtake South Carolina.
As a result, LSU (16-4, 5-2) has taken three conference games in a row, something it couldn’t do last season, and has won three straight road games into the matchup with Mississippi State (9-11, 2-5 SEC).
LSU is in a four-way tie for second in the SEC, two games behind unbeaten Kentucky, in a tightly-bunched top half of the league.
“Each night is really like that in some form or fashion when you are playing in this conference with what teams have to offer,” Jones said. “That’s why it is so challenging.”
While it would be nice to win going away, like in a 79-61 blowout of Florida 10 days ago, guard Keith Hornsby said the Tigers believe they have the ability to do it when needed.
“If games come down to that, where it’s just a few points, we have to be ready for it,” he said. “Shoot, we can play every game like that now. The more experience we get, the better we are at closing them out.
“Against South Carolina, we played with a sense of urgency down the stretch,” he said. “It was the same way at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss and here against Georgia in overtime.”
The good thing, Jones said, is his team, which had to dig deep for nonconference wins at West Virginia and UAB, has been able to do it against different styles of play.
“We have been able to play through a lot of different styles and still have been able to have success,” he said.
Hornsby said the turning point was the Texas A&M loss, when LSU blew a 13-point second half lead and let an 11-point cushion slip away in the final 10 minutes at home.
“Since that A&M game, when we get in that situation, we just kind of cut all the other stuff out and come to the realization that we can’t lose another game like that,” he said. “That’s really been our mindset. It’s a cliché to say, ‘Leave it all on the floor,’ but that’s literally what we do.”
That mentality helped produce back-to-back, grind-it-out wins against Vanderbilt in overtime and South Carolina.
Against Carolina, LSU trailed 56-52 until Gray hit a 3-point shot with 2:44 to play to get his team going, then made a layup for a 57-56 lead.
On the other end, four blocked shots on South Carolina’s last four field goals — three by Jordan Mickey and one by Hornsby — helped LSU get over the hump in the final 1:09.
“Getting offensive rebounds, creating turnovers and getting the game ugly to where it’s difficult for you to score, you go through those battles,” Jones said. “When you are able to win those types of battles when you’re in them, it’s good.”
“He (Jones) was telling us we needed to just tough it out,” Mickey, who had six of LSU’s 13 blocked shots, said of the final 30 seconds against South Carolina. “We were able to tough it out. We got some timely rebounds and came up with some big buckets.”
It can make for some nervous moments, but Gray and Hornsby said it can also bring out the best in players.
“That’s what makes it more fun when the adrenaline is pumping,” Gray said. “When it’s bucket for bucket and the crowd is getting into it … that’s what makes it a lot of fun.”
“That’s where your competitiveness shows,” Hornsby said. “If we have to fight for our wins, that’s fun. But it’s also fun to get an easy win, too.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.