AUBURN, Ala. — Chatting in the serene confines of LSU’s practice facility early in the week, a disquieting theme emerged surrounding the Southeastern Conference opener at Auburn.
Ominously, LSU framed it as a hunt for blood, a macabre meeting between two middle-tier programs hunting for early respect in the conference race.
Ultimately, Auburn nicked LSU early and applied the definitive gash midway through the second half with a 14-2 run in a 68-63 victory in front of an announced 6,355 at Auburn Arena, ending a string of five-consecutive losses to open conference play.
“When they had the chance, they put the hammer down on us,” LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant said. “We couldn’t swing back.”
Guard Charles Carmouche paced LSU (9-3, 0-1 SEC) with 16 points, but needed a 5-of-16 outing to do it.
Backcourt duo Anthony Hickey, starting in place of injured Corban Collins, and Andre Stringer each added 13 points, while Hickey doled out four assists and nabbed three steals.
And the pair seemingly provided LSU, which trailed by as many as eight points in the first half, a chance to assert control in just the team’s third trek away from Baton Rouge.
Stringer hit a 3-pointer off the left wing on a cross-court kickout from Andrew Del Piero in the post, stretching a narrow one-point lead to 31-27 on the first possession of the half.
Lingering near half court, Hickey deflected Josh Wallace’s lazy pass and trotted in for an easy layup and a six-point lead only 59 seconds into the second half.
“We settled in and battled back,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “Then we come out in the first minute of the second half and get a great start.”
And it left Auburn coach Tony Barbee whistling for a full timeout to stanch the momentum.
The 60-second break proved the perfect salve for Auburn, which was without guards Chris Denson and Jordan Price after both suffered stress fractures in a foot.
Forward Anthony Payne, who scored 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting, proved the catalyst when his bucket in the lane cut the deficit to 37-35 with 14:29 to go.
Freshman swingman Shaquille Jones added 11 points and a career-high nine rebounds, while leading scorer Frankie Sullivan had 10 points along with a pair of assists and two steals.
After Hickey’s 3-point attempt went long on LSU’s possession, Payne capped a run out off the rebound with a wrap-around pass to a trailing Asauhn Dixon-Tatum for a dunk to pull even.
“We went up a couple points, and we thought we were going to be able to take off,” Stringer said. “Obviously, our inability to sustain hurt us.”
The sequence proved the model way to slow LSU: Pack the defense in a zone, collapse on entry passes to O’Bryant and leading scorer Chavon Coleman, and force their foe to settle for 3-pointers.
LSU, which shot just 37.3 percent, obliged in shooting 9-of-27 behind the 3-point arc and barely outscoring Auburn 32-26 in the lane.
“We started settling as a team, taking what they were giving us,” Jones said. ‘We settled behind the 3-point line a little too much.”
During Auburn’s run, LSU hit just one of six shots, settling for five jumpers, and committed three turnovers to let Barbee’s team get in transition.
Cue up Josh Wallace’s layup after stripping LSU’s Shavon Coleman, who was held to four points on 2-of-9 shooting, and Auburn was ahead for good 39-37 with 13:45 left to go.
The rest of the run was perfunctory.
Guard Frankie Sullivan, who had 10 points and two assists, knocked down an open 3-pointer for a 42-37 lead with 12:53 left to play.
Finally, Sullivan swiped the ball from O’Bryant, still slowed by a high-ankle sprain, on the left block and fired a long outlet bass to Wallace for a layup and a 44-39 lead with 12:11 remaining.
And forward Noel Johnson capped the burst on a pick-and-pop 3-pointer at the top of the arc to stretch Auburn’s margin to 47-39 with 10:12 left to play.
After limiting Auburn to just 39.3 percent shooting in the first half, Jones watched as that figure finished at 46.3 percent for the game.
“We weren’t a great team tonight,” Jones said. “We didn’t grind it out and make tough plays and make stops.”
Unfortunately, it was a reversal from the first half for LSU, which trailed by as many as eight points twice but rallied to take a 28-27 lead into the locker room.
Trailing 19-11 where LSU clamped down over the next eight minutes for a 15-4 run.
O’Bryant got a putback on a missed Coleman jumper with 6:33 left in the first half to cut the lead to 21-16, and then took an entry pass from Carmouche for another lay-up at 5:36 to pare the deficit to three points.
But it was Stringer who drew LSU even 22-22, scoring on an inbounds play after curling into the lane off a screen at the elbow with 2:39 until halftime.
But LSU couldn’t get its frontcourt, which shot just 8-of-25, involved in the second half. Trapping in the corners of its zone, O’Bryant and Coleman were constantly harassed, committing seven of LSU’s 12 turnovers.
“It was hard for us to work out of those traps,” O’Bryant said. “They did a nice job getting over the top of us and getting their hands on the ball.”
Ultimately, Jones felt LSU settled for quick shots instead of patiently picking apart gaps.
“We’ve got just to do a better job when we see zones of being patient,” Jones said. “We don’t have to settle for that early shot. We can get that later in the clock.”
Those misses turned into long rebounds, which generated the transition game that undergirded Auburn’s win.
“We played in spurts tonight,” Jones said. “You just can’t do that.”