Thanks to a three-game winning streak, the LSU men’s basketball team’s postseason picture is starting to come into focus.
In fact, the picture is much clearer now for both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments following Saturday’s crucial 73-63 victory over Ole Miss in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
It was crucial because it gave LSU a leg up over both Ole Miss and Georgia in the race for the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament, which begins March 11 in Nashville, Tennessee, and it enhanced the Tigers’ NCAA tournament résumé.
While earning a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 is the season-long goal, LSU (21-8, 10-6) still has some work to do to secure the fourth seed for the conference tournament — and the double-bye that comes with it.
If not for a near-flawless second half in which LSU outscored Ole Miss 50-36 after trailing by four at halftime, the Tigers would’ve had little to no shot at landing the fourth spot in the league with only two games remaining in the regular season.
“That was something we talked about before the game,” forward Jarell Martin said. “We definitely came out determined. … We wanted it.”
By the end of the day, LSU, fueled by guard Tim Quarterman’s triple-double, was tied for fourth with Ole Miss and Georgia. What’s more important is that the Tigers hold the edge over the Rebels and Bulldogs in the event of a two-way tie with either team. LSU also would get the nod in a three-team deadlock after going 3-0 against those teams.
Yet that was the last thing on the minds of the LSU players at halftime Saturday after the Tigers shot 29.6 percent — their third-worst shooting half of the season.
“You have it in the back of your mind, but you don’t want to have it up front,” guard Keith Hornsby said of what was at stake in the key game. “You have to take the game as it comes to you, but it’s good to have it in your mind so it inspires you to do well during the game.”
That played a part in a comeback, which included a 21-3 run in a 10-minute stretch spanning the end of the first half and the start of the second. That gave LSU, which shot 54.5 percent in the second half, the momentum it needed to overtake Ole Miss.
The first half was strikingly similar to how LSU, which trailed by 11 at one point, played during an 81-77 upset home loss to Auburn on Feb. 5.
“That second half was vitally important,” said Hornsby, who scored 16 points for his 12th consecutive double-digit game. “I think we were a little stagnant on offense, and Ole Miss was making some good plays.”
“Nobody got down on themselves as a team,” said Quarterman, who posted LSU’s first triple-double in 23 years with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists despite an ankle injury he suffered in Friday’s practice. “That happens in basketball; you’re not going to make every shot. As a team, we went out in the second half and held each other accountable.”
Still, there were some anxious moments in a game they needed badly.
“I couldn’t help but think about (the Auburn game),” Hornsby said. “It was just in my mind like, ‘Not again.’ But, like we normally do, we fought our way back and put ourselves in a good spot.”
As a result, LSU is in a much better spot going into its home finale with Tennessee on Wednesday and a matchup with Arkansas, which is second in the conference, on Saturday in Fayetteville. If it wins both, LSU wouldn’t have to play until the SEC quarterfinals March 13.
“For these guys, it’s all about chapters,” coach Johnny Jones said. ??We all know where we were last year with the conference wins, and these guys have done a terrific job of improving this year. They understand, and they also understand the significance of where they are right now.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.