Keith Hornsby committed a turnover on LSU’s end but didn’t hang his head. He sprinted to the other end and, seeing a pass swing toward Buddy Hield in front of the Oklahoma bench, raced the baseline to try to get a hand in the Sooners sharpshooter’s face.
But Hield makes contested 3-pointers like most players make layups. Hornsby was a split-second too late, and Hield swished the jumper to give his team a 66-65 lead with 4:04 remaining, its first since the very early going.
Such a telling moment for LSU, which came up just a fingernail away from clawing out an upset victory over No. 1 Oklahoma. In the end, it was too much Hield, too much Isaiah Cousins (who canned the game-winning shot with 3.8 seconds left) and not enough Ben Simmons as LSU lost a frustrating but potentially still formative 77-75 decision inside a sold-out, hyped-up Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
The atmosphere was all you could ask for in a game like this — and some of what you wouldn’t (like students hurling ice and insults at Hield and his teammates). So was LSU’s effort. That it also ended up being another chapter in the LSU basketball book of “What might have been” was almost scripted.
The Tigers were imperfect, as always, committing 15 turnovers and bricking chippies around the basket three, maybe four times. Perhaps the Tigers were overheated for this matchup. That’s understandable. As is often the case with LSU, you can go begging for better execution, but on this Saturday you couldn’t ask for more effort.
Unlike last year, when No. 1 Kentucky escaped here unbeaten when Hornsby’s last-second 3-pointer refused to fall, there is no “it” team to shoot at this season. There are a handful of very good squads — five have been ranked No. 1, and you could identify a dozen or so more who could easily claim the national title. Oklahoma is one of those, right now maybe the best of them.
It isn’t just the quality and quantity of the Sooners’ shots but their steadiness born out of a starting lineup that features three seniors and a roster that contains five seniors overall.
The Sooners didn’t panic when a Tim Quarterman 3-pointer put them down 36-23 with five minutes left in the first half. They cut LSU’s lead to a manageable 44-36 at halftime.
OU didn’t crack when Simmons sliced left to right under the basket for a reverse slam and a 50-38 Tigers lead with 16:50 left, or moments later when LSU took its biggest lead at 52-38 on a baseline jumper by Hornsby. They just started pouring in 3-pointers like it was practice.
When Antonio Blakeney drained a pressure-packed 3-pointer to retie the game at 75 with 23.4 seconds left, it seemed the eruption might lift the PMAC’s roof off its moorings. The Sooners didn’t flinch. Cousins drove into the lane and pulled up for a 15-foot jumper with 3.8 seconds left that was a silk-covered dagger to the Tigers’ upset plans.
LSU still had one last gasp. Quarterman flew past the benches and tried to drive to the basket, where he was met by a stone fortification named Khadeem Lattin. He blocked Quarterman’s shot to the court, and it was over.
Quarterman claimed he was fouled — he was; Lattin put a hand into his chest — but in basketball you never get a call like that as the clock is winding down. Better to have dished to Blakeney, who has rebooted his confidence, for a 3. Better to have found Simmons for a jumper. It’s not that Quarterman made a bad play; it just wasn’t likely to work.
Of course, finding Simmons down the stretch was problem No. 1 for LSU.
He didn’t score a point in the final 10:01 and attempted only one shot in that span. The offensive load fell to Quarterman, who did much but in truth tried to do too much at times. Simmons got everyone else involved in the offense with five assists to go with his 14 points and nine rebounds, but again he needed to be more of the offense. Like Hield. Simmons only took seven shots (making six) while Hield was 11-of-22.
The mandate is for Simmons to be more “selfish” as a scorer. It’s either not in his talented genes or not in his mindset as a freshman. Hield, a senior, knows when to put his team on his back. It’s why he will be national player of the year and Simmons will not.
The Tigers have talent but can’t be what the Sooners are: a steel-tough team forged by years of experience together. Oklahoma looks like it’s headed to a deserving No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. Knocking the Sooners out in March or April will require them helping you with a bad shooting night.
LSU remains an NCAA bubble team. The Tigers, second in the Southeastern Conference at a game behind Texas A&M, could have helped their NCAA hopes enormously, but they didn’t hurt themselves by the same measure. At 13-8 overall and 6-2 in the SEC, LSU has to get back to the business of winning SEC games. That starts with avoiding a trap at outclassed but dangerous Auburn on Tuesday.
All in all, it was a great show — just not as great for LSU as it could have been if only for one shot, one miss or one make.