GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In three days, the LSU men’s basketball team went from blowing a game to blowing out its next opponent.
In a you-never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get-start to the Southeastern Conference portion of its schedule, LSU, still smarting from a home loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, got just what it needed Tuesday night at Florida.
It wasn’t just any old bounce-back win, either.
This one was as satisfying and complete as they come, especially when you consider a 79-61 smashing of Florida on the road was about as unlikely as LSU squandering an 11-point second-half lead and handing A&M a gift win.
How the Tigers did it was as impressive as where they did it: in the O’Connell Center, an intimidating venue where Florida had disposed of 20 SEC opponents in a row dating to a March 4, 2012, setback to Kentucky.
In trying to make sense of that deflating loss to Texas A&M, LSU coach Johnny Jones said his team would have to make up for it by winning a game or two that people didn’t expect the Tigers to win.
Tuesday night’s game certainly qualified.
While Florida isn’t the same team that went 36-3 a year ago and got to the Final Four after sweeping through the SEC regular season and the postseason tournament with 21 consecutive victories, they’re capable of winning most of their games — especially at home.
On top of that, LSU was a 10-point underdog against a mad Florida team that had its 24-game winning streak in league play snapped Saturday at Georgia.
“I’m not sure how many people were giving us a chance to come and play in this environment and in the game,” Jones said after the Tigers maintained their five-point halftime lead and never let the Gators get closer than 10 points in the final 10 minutes. “It speaks volumes of our guys.”
Like his coach, guard Keith Hornsby said he and his teammates had to compensate for the bad loss to A&M. At the same time, he acknowledged few people would have given the Tigers much of a chance against the Gators.
“Everybody knows it’s hard to come in here and get a win, so there were probably some doubters,” a smiling Hornsby said after scoring 15 points on a 6-of-12 shooting night after missing three of his first four shots. “But I know there are a lot of diehard fans that knew we could do this.”
Maybe, but how many believed they could do it the way they did?
After shooting 29.4 percent from the field in a dreadful second half against Texas A&M, mainly because of quick shots and poor shot selection from the outside, LSU exhibited balance with 32 of its 62 points scored off field goals coming from outside and the other 30 coming in the paint.
That helped the Tigers shoot 54.2 percent from the field in the decisive second half, while the Gators hit 33.3 percent of their field-goal attempts.
For the game, LSU shot 51.9 percent and Florida, which was leading the league in shooting 48.3 percent in conference play, managed just 38.3 percent.
“Everybody was on the same page today, and everybody was helping each other out,” said guard Tim Quarterman, who had 15 points, five rebounds and eight assists. “They scored some easy baskets at times, but that goes with the game. For the most part, we stuck with our defense.”
The Tigers also had a big night at the free-throw line, going 17-of-18, with big men Jordan Mickey (6-of-6) and Jarell Martin (7-of-8) doing most of the work in an area that plagued them in their first two SEC games — most notably in an overtime loss at Missouri.
“I thought we did a great job of being able to close them down that way,” Jones said. “It was real important to make sure we finished the right way.
“Our guys did a great job of composing themselves and getting back out there and taking care of the basketball, being strong with it and meeting passes well.”
After four nail-biters to open conference play, LSU was finally able to breathe a little at the end, including a lengthy sigh of relief when the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“It was a big relief off our shoulders,” said Martin, who had 22 points and eight rebounds. “We were definitely excited. … When we got to the locker room, everybody was screaming and jumping and hollering.”
The best part was knowing that no team had celebrated in that locker room in nearly three years, and they did it after a tough loss.
“We knew we had to get right back in the gym (after A&M), and we responded,” Hornsby said. “Coach was optimistic, and he really brought the team together and had a little meeting. I think it fired us up for this game.”
Only about 2,000 tickets remain for LSU’s matchup with top-ranked Kentucky on Feb. 10 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Tickets went on sale 10 days ago, and the lower two levels (100 and 200 sections) have sold out. The 2,000 tickets available are in the upper level (300 sections).
Tickets are available at www.LSUtix.net, at the LSU Athletic Ticket Office or by calling (800) 960-8587.
Prices start at $16 for adults and $5 for youths ages 3-12. The Kentucky game is also available as part of the Pick 5 Mini Plan, along with four other SEC games, for $76.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.