LSU coach Johnny Jones carried his reserved demeanor into the Tigers locker room Saturday afternoon, his team trailing by one to Big Sky opponent Gardner-Webb in its season-opener.
“He tells it like it is,” guard Keith Hornsby said of his coach.
How was it?
Jones’ frontcourt, which stands 6-foot-8, 6-foot-10 and 7-foot-1 surrendered 32 points in the paint against a Runnin’ Bulldogs interior that stood 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7 on most occasions.
“We were passive in the post,” Jones said matter-of-factly. “I thought we played it safe. I didn’t think we were aggressive enough in there against their post guys early.”
The words stuck with Tiger forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, who clamped down, with the help of a 2-3 zone, to limit the Runnin’ Bulldogs in the second half. That, coupled with offensive stretches from Hornsby and Mickey, lifted LSU to a 93-82 victory in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Mickey and Martin paced the balanced Tigers offense with 21 points apiece, though Gardner-Webb forward Jerome Hill led all scorers with 25 points on 12-of-17 shooting from the field.
Hill, along with 6-foot-7 center Tyrell Nelson, used backdoor cuts and instinctive passing to control the first half tempo in the paint, pouring in 29 of the Runnin’ Bulldogs 43 first half points.
“Just making catches too easy,” Mickey said of the duo. “We have to do a better job of making it hard for guys to catch the ball. We gave up too many easy looks in the first half.”
Hornsby canned a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:54 left in the first to put the Tigers up 38-37. Nelson and Hill then ended the half as it began, scoring the next six Runnin’ Bulldogs points to head in the locker room with a 43-42 advantage.
Though Hornsby joked after the game his coach didn’t need to say anything at the break, Jones was sure he addressed his youthful bunch.
“When you play like that, you’re trying not to foul and when you put yourself in a position to do that, teams have a chance to take advantage of you because there’s no resistance,” Jones said. “We didn’t give them (resistance) early.”
Martin scored five straight for the Tigers out of the locker room to put the Tigers lead at five, a lead the team did not relinquish, thanks to Hornsby.
The UNC-Asheville transfer, who spent an extended portion of the first half on the bench in favor of freshman Jalyn Patterson, scored seven straight points for the Tigers, beginning with back-to-back layups in transition with 15:50 left.
He followed with a baseline jumper after he chased down an offensive rebound, then a 3-pointer from the same spot on the ensuing possession, padding the Tigers lead to 58-49 and forcing the Runnin’ Bulldogs into a 30-second timeout.
“It gave us much needed energy,” Hornsby said. “I was fired up, I know the team was. That’s just how it’s got to be. I have to make those plays, and I’m glad I did it when I had to.”
Just one minute later, it was Mickey’s turn. The sophomore scored 12 straight LSU points, sprinkling in paint points with outside jumpers and capped off with a baseline spin move and one-handed reverse jam, which put LSU up 72-58.
“If we lose, I believe it would be my fault,” Mickey said. “I’m one of the leaders, one of the captains. I wasn’t playing as good as I should have been. I decided I had to step up and make some plays for my team.”
The LSU lead swelled to as many as 16 after a Josh Gray transition layup, and was whittled to as few as five in the closing seconds, but a 13-14 showing at the foul line ensured a season-opening win.
The Tigers out-rebounded the Runnin’ Bulldogs 47-28, a marked improvement from their exhibition game against Morehouse, but defensive troubles gave Jones another worry before Texas Tech invades the PMAC at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“We certainly have to do a much better job of holding our opponents to a much lower score,” Jones said. “You can’t give up 80 points a game and win a lot of games.