The one thing Saturday’s men’s basketball games in the Southeastern Conference provided was a little clarity heading into the final week of the regular season, especially for LSU.
It wasn’t easy — nothing is for this team — but when LSU snapped a three-game losing streak by hanging on for a closer-than-it-had-to-be 96-91 win over Florida on Saturday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Tigers moved a bit closer to securing a double bye for the conference tournament, which begins March 9 in Nashville, Tennessee.
As impossible as it seemed when LSU was reeling from that three-game losing skid and four losses in five league games, everything looked a lot better when the Tigers held off Florida despite a near collapse in the final three minutes.
Here’s the good news for Johnny Jones’ team: After that rough patch of the past couple of weeks, LSU improved to 10-6 in the league and is tied for third with South Carolina and Vanderbilt with two games to play. Those three teams are just a game behind co-leaders Kentucky and Texas A&M, both 11-5.
LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are two games in front of a pack of five teams with two left, which means that trio, Kentucky and A&M likely will be vying for the top four seeds and automatic passage into the tournament quarterfinals.
As of Sunday, LSU would have finished in the middle of a three-team tiebreaker with South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
In ties involving more than two teams, the deciding factor is games among the three teams. In this case, South Carolina beat LSU and Vanderbilt, LSU split with those teams, and Vandy lost both — making South Carolina the No. 3 seed, LSU fourth and Vanderbilt fifth.
The bottom line is this: With a home game Tuesday night against cellar-dwelling Missouri and the regular-season finale Saturday at Kentucky, LSU controls its fate and can even claim at least a share of the league title.
It can be argued that LSU needs to play a second-round game in the SEC tournament to strengthen its low RPI, but that’s something the Tigers will deal with — if it happens.
What they have to be concerned with now is closing games.
LSU nearly let one get away Jan. 26 when it held on to beat Georgia 89-85 after leading by 13 points with 2:17 to play — strikingly similar to what happened Saturday night.
The Tigers led the Gators by 12 points with 2:41 remaining and were still up by 11 with 1:55 left when things got crazy.
LSU missed seven free throws and had a turnover during a 64-second stretch that let Florida get back in the game before Antonio Blakeney went to the line and made six consecutive free throws in the final 17.7 seconds to finish the victory.
Blakeney was 6-of-11 from the stripe before finding the mark at the right time.
“I missed some early in the game,” he said, “but I just tried to forget about that and knock them down.”
It capped a career-high 32-point performance by Blakeney, who was joined in double figures by Ben Simmons (22), Tim Quarterman (15), Jalyn Patterson (11) and Craig Victor (10). Simmons also had 11 rebounds and five assists.
While there were some anxious moments, some unsung heroes stepped up — which bodes well for Jones’ team after Keith Hornsby missed his second consecutive game with a hernia injury.
Patterson, who was 5-of-20 from the field in the previous four games, was 4-of-7 with three 3-pointers and five steals; Quarterman scored one more point than he did in the previous three games; and Darcy Malone matched his career high with five rebounds and two steals.
Those efforts helped LSU build a 40-29 halftime lead and put up 56 points in the second half, allowing it to withstand Florida’s furious 62-point second-half onslaught.
“Our guys did a great job, even there in the end — staying poised under pressure when (Florida) was making plays and getting back in the game,” Jones said. “We did not do a good job containing the basketball. But at the end of the day, we had a big-time win here at home to put us in a situation to end this conference season strong.”
The road that remains
A look at what’s left for the top five teams in the SEC race:
Texas A&M (11-5): at Auburn (Tuesday), vs. Vanderbilt (Saturday)
Kentucky (11-5): at Florida (Tuesday), vs. LSU (Saturday)
South Carolina (10-6): vs. Georgia (Thursday), at Arkansas (Saturday)
LSU (10-6): vs. Missouri (Tuesday), at Kentucky (Saturday)
Vanderbilt (10-6): vs. Tennessee (Tuesday), at Texas A&M (Saturday)