Moment by moment, possession by possession, by each rebound and dunk and block and steal, the LSU Tigers may finally be evolving into the basketball team we all thought it could be.
The latest evidence: Saturday’s 73-63 over Ole Miss. For just the second time this season the Tigers are proud owners of a three-game Southeastern Conference winning streak.
Like LSU, Ole Miss is a flawed but nonetheless capable squad. The Rebels broke out of a serve-and-volley baseline duel over the first 11 minutes and galloped away to a 26-15 lead by the 5:57 mark, using spot-on midrange jumpers and clicking defensive switches.
Then the Tigers struck back with their power hitters. Jarell Martin made a free throw and rattled the rim with a big dunk off a feed from Jalyn Patterson. He followed that up with a brawny move to the basket for a hoop and a foul, and as Ole Miss’ jumpers grew cold LSU was back within 27-23 at halftime.
Ole Miss stayed in it as LSU heated up, Jordan Mickey finding his shot after an 0-for-6 first half. It was only 47-40 Tigers after a three-point play by Tim Quarterman, who notched LSU’s first triple-double (18 points, 10 rebounds and assists) since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992.
Next came the kind of sequence that takes your breath away, and makes you wonder how LSU could squander games to Missouri and Mississippi State.
Mickey blocked Jarvis Summers, igniting a fast break. Patterson grabbed the rebound and fired a surface-to-surface pass ahead to Quarterman, who found a Mickey for another shattering dunk with 9:49 left.
The basket put LSU up nine. Then it was 11. Then 12. By the second-to-last media time out you knew Ole Miss was done barring a collapse by the Tigers. The kind we’ve seen them make.
But something said it wasn’t to be today. Finally, the team that can play so superbly but so disinterested at times, the team that can overcook its fast breaks and squander scoring opportunities, that team seems to be growing up.
“For these guys, it is all about chapters,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “These guys have done a terrific job of improving this year. With us sitting on 21 wins, that is a huge positive for us to continue with the rest of the year. We have improved as a team. They understand the significance of where they are right now.”
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy was impressed.
“I think Johnny’s got three guys in Martin, Mickey and Quarterman that are maybe underrated as it relates to the level of their intensity,” he said. “They are so talented, so smooth, sometimes they make the game look easy.
“To a man, when it was their time to step up, that’s what they did.”
There have been times when LSU looked like it couldn’t be bothered to match its opponents intensity and desire. But Saturday, the Rebels were, like the Tigers, in much need of an NCAA résumé-boosting victory.
Now LSU is again the proud owner of four wins over RPI Top 50 teams (at least as of Saturday), adding a two-game season sweep of Ole Miss to earlier wins over Georgia and at West Virginia.
Suddenly, LSU looks like it has left the NCAA tourney bubble far behind. If the Tigers beat Tennessee — which got clubbed Saturday at Florida — at home Wednesday, LSU should be playing at Arkansas for SEC and NCAA tournament seeding, not to decide whether they deserve an at-large berth.
If the season ended today, LSU would be the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament. Anyone for an LSU-Kentucky semifinal rematch? If the season ended today, LSU would be an NCAA 8, 9 or 10 seed. Think anyone would be happy about seeing LSU show up in their bracket?
It’s March now, and moment by moment, these maturing Tigers are finally looking dangerous — to someone other than themselves.