CHARLESTON, S.C. - The LSU men’s basketball team must have felt it was on a rollercoaster Thursday, coming up short as John Shurna scored 37 points to pace Northwestern over the Tigers 88-82 in the opening round of the Charleston Classic.
LSU led by 14 in the first half, then trailed by nine with five minutes remaining before losing after closing within one point in the final minute.
“Our kids never gave up”, Johnson said. “We kept scratching and clawing until the final buzzer. That’s a good basketball team we played.”
Northwestern (2-0) is projected to be near the top of the Big 10 this season. The Wildcats moved into a winners bracket matchup with Tulsa, a 65-49 winner over Western Kentucky. The Tulsa-Northwestern winner will advance to Sunday night’s championship game.
The loss moves the Tigers (1-2) into a consolation bracket matchup with Western Kentucky, a 65-49 loser to Tulsa, at noon Friday.
Down 76-67 with 5:07 to play in the game, LSU mounted a final charge, getting within 83-82 in the final minute.
After LSU freshman Johnny O’Bryant III, who led LSU with 21 points and eight rebounds, made two free throws with 1:18 remaining, a jumper by Northwestern’s JerShon Cobb and a 30-second timeout by LSU coach Trent Johnson, Ralston Turner made a 3-pointer to get LSU within one with 47.7 to play.
That was as close as the Tigers got as Northwestern’s Dave Sobolewski answered with a 3 of his own from the corner.
“The game never got away from us,” Johnson said.
The first half looked as if LSU would be able to run away and hide as it built a 14-point advantage with a 20-5 run by holding Northwestern without a field goal for almost nine minutes.
A Justin Hamilton layup, with just over 12:45 to play in the opening half, gave the Tigers a 15-14 lead to begin the run. Freshman point guard Anthony Hickey had seven points and two assists as LSU went up 33-19 with 4:31 to play before halftime.
After leading 41-32 at halftime, LSU was outscored 17-8 in the first five minutes of the second half, culminating in a 3-pointer by Northwestern’s Reggie Hearn to tie the game at 49-49.
Shurna, an All-Big Ten forward, scored 21 of his 37 points after halftime. He also had seven rebounds, went 13 of 14 from the free throw line and made four 3-pointers.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Johnson said of Shurna. “We won’t see many better than him all year. He can shoot it and go rebound.”
“We’re going to fight to the end,” Shurna said. “We were down a little bit, and we fought back. I think that’s a good sign for the start of the season.”
Northwestern used its 1-3-1 zone to its advantage in the second half, slowing down the Tigers offense in forcing tougher shots and more patience in the half court.
“They did a good job getting the tempo in their favor in the second half,” Johnson said. “It took us until there at the end to get things going back the way we wanted to play.”
The Wildcats also went to the 3-pointer as well, going 12 of 31, including four during its second half run.
“That is their deal,” Johnson said. “They use great patience to get the shots they want on offense. Our kids made them work for the shots; they were just able to make them go down in the second half.”
The Tigers shot 49 percent from the field and outrebounded Northwestern 39-28, an area that had hurt LSU in its loss to Coastal Carolina on Tuesday.
“We have some youth, but I feel when made steps in the positive direction,” Johnson said. “Now, we just have to learn to finish.”
For LSU, Andre Stringer added 15 points while Hickey chipped in 11, all in the first half.
“Everybody wants to say we’re young,” Johnson said. “We are going to be fine. The key for us, as I told the players, is making sure you stay the course and stay together. We are going to win our share of games. We’ve gotten beat by two experienced quality basketball teams. We’ve got to shore some things up defensively.
“We were better on the glass (Thursday). We’ve got to do a better job at the point of attack. This stuff (Northwestern) runs is hard to guard whether you are experienced or young.”
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said he wasn’t so much concerned about LSU’s halftime lead as his team’s sluggish showing. The Wildcats were not playing with effort and that had to change.
“I didn’t spend a lot of the halftime talk discussing basketball,” Carmody said.
Whatever he said appeared to work as the Wildcats, behind 11 points from Shurna, opened the second half on a 24-12 run to move in front.
“We’re happy that we got points, but we’re even happier that a lot of guys got to play and make contributions,” Carmody said.
The Associated Press and a university news release contributed to this report.