On a day when they unveiled the new statue of LSU’s Bob Pettit outside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Tigers sure could have used a few minutes of old-fashioned “D” from their 83-year-old legend.
Or his statue.
Lest you think me too negative, the Tigers did hold on to beat Florida 96-91. And with two games to go, LSU is tied for third in the Southeastern Conference, one game back of co-leaders Kentucky and Texas A&M with two to play.
Of course, it was a typical LSU finale. Sort of reminded me of a Daytona 500 I covered when Clint Boyer crossed the finish line — on his hood.
Yes, he went the distance. Yes, the Tigers won.
But it wasn’t exactly a textbook.
Here’s a transcript of the final five or so minutes for LSU:
Ack … hack … clank … tweet … gasp … swish … cough, cough.
If he weren’t so busy trying to insult his way to the White House, Donald Trump would call LSU a “chocker.” Or a near chocker. A win is a win, whether it comes in dominant fashion (the Tigers held an 18-point lead with just under 14 minutes left) or whether it comes with some Les Miles-like late-game escape-trunk magic.
You can’t ever write LSU’s opponents off, can you? But the same goes for LSU. At 17-12 and 10-6 in SEC play, with a very winnable (notice we didn’t say “cinch”) game at home Tuesday against last-place Missouri, LSU should still have a chance to claim a piece of the SEC title going into next Saturday’s regular-season finale at Kentucky.
So I’m telling you there’s a chance?
Yes I am.
In the first half, the first half of what likely will be the rest of the season without sparkplug guard Keith Hornsby, the Tigers looked crisp. Mostly. They led 20-8, fell behind 23-20, but held the Gators to six points in the last 7 ½ minutes to go up 40-29 at the break.
LSU held on, but the Tigers’ big bugaboo — a lack of defense, particularly in the paint — cropped up again. And this time against a Florida team that doesn’t exactly move the needle offensively.
The Tigers surrendered 44 points in the paint and 62 — yes, 62 — points in the second half. With power forward Craig Victor playing intermittently through chronic foul trouble — Victor collects fouls like some people collect shot glasses — the Tigers survived for two reasons.
One, they got a career-high 32 points from Antonio Blakeney.
Two, they got a typically steady hand from Ben Simmons: 22 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, his fifth 20-10-5 game of the season.
At least Pettit’s team didn’t end up putting a downer finish on what was a magnificent day for the Hall of Famer.
Just after Pettit and 10 of his grandchildren pulled the white tarp off his tall, slender statue outside the northwest corner of the PMAC, the man cut from Baton Rouge High teams as a freshman and sophomore said he couldn’t have even set a goal for something like this.
“My ambition as a sophomore in high school was to win a letter by the time I was a senior,” Pettit said. “That was all I wanted.”
Pettit grew and so did his ambitions, from 5-foot-10 as a high school freshman to 6-7 as a senior before then LSU coach Harry Rabenhorst casually offered him a scholarship over dinner at Bob and Jake’s long-gone restaurant.
Through basketball, Pettit got his No. 50 retired at LSU in 1954 (the school’s first athlete so honored) and a trip the Final Four. It took him to an NBA championship with the St. Louis Hawks, two NBA MVP awards and a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Now here I am all these years later with a statue next door to Shaquille O’Neal,” a humbled Pettit said after the ceremony. “I’ve got a lot to talk to him about. We’ll talk at night like (‘Night at the Museum’).
“Did I ever dream it? No. Never.
“I’ve had some nice honors, but they all pale in comparison to this.”
Unlike Shaq’s statue, body bent with the force of a rim-rattling dunk, Pettit’s statue is of him pulling straight up for a jump shot, cradling the ball in his right hand and steadying it with his left. It’s the jump shot that made him the first NBA player to score 20,000 career points and made him an all-star those 11 seasons he played with the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks.
About those All-Star Games, Pettit said they weren’t the defenseless showpieces they are now.
“We played for blood,” said Pettit, 83, the blood draining from his voice. “I lost a scoring championship one year because I broke my hand” in an All-Star Game, ducking his head to demonstrate how an opponent ducked under him and propelled him into the second row.
LSU could use some of that defense these days.
Pettit will be the featured speaker at LSU’s final tipoff luncheon of the season at 11:30 a.m. Monday at L’Auberge Casino and Hotel.
— Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.