The buzzword for the LSU men’s basketball team Monday afternoon, two days after an important two-point road win against Alabama, was growth.
From the players to coach Johnny Jones, the talk was about growth — growth from a stinging six-point loss at Florida two weeks earlier and last Tuesday night’s 14-point setback at now fifth-ranked Texas A&M to Saturday’s dramatic victory.
“Growth,” Jones said of making the plays LSU needed in the final two minutes to overcome Alabama for a 72-70 win. “It was something similar to what we faced at Texas A&M in front of that type of environment.
“We probably didn’t handle it as well there,” he said. “We thought we did a much better job closing the game out at Alabama. Those were positive steps for a really young team that hadn’t been in that position a whole lot this year.”
As LSU nears the halfway point of its Southeastern Conference schedule, Jones and his team know continued growth is a key — especially in an 8 p.m. Tuesday matchup with Georgia in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Taking another step in that direction against Georgia is crucial for LSU (12-7, 5-2) considering the Tigers have a huge home date with No. 1-ranked Oklahoma looming Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
But it’s first things first for Jones’ team.
Having the momentum from finishing on both ends of the floor, as it did when LSU outscored Alabama 6-1 in the final three minutes Saturday, will be important against Georgia (11-6, 4-3).
“I would say we grew up as a team in that game,” LSU forward Craig Victor said Monday. “There was a lot of progression shown from the previous game from being in foul trouble, not only me, but Ben (Simmons).
“We’ve learned, I would say, to finish. We have learned to finish in the right direction, and it’s just another step to being where we want to be. So I feel that was another learning experience; we showed people we can actually finish the game.”
Guard Tim Quarterman, who had big plays on offense and defense in crunch time against Alabama, agreed.
“We’re really growing up as a team,” he said. “I think a couple of weeks ago we would have lost that game. We got stops in the end … big stops we needed, and that was the big difference.
“At Florida, we had a couple of opportunities to make plays late, and we just didn’t execute. So the last game was good for us confidence-wise.”
It couldn’t come at a better time, because Georgia, which started 1-2 in the conference, has won three of its past four in SEC play — with its most recent victory coming Saturday against Arkansas in overtime.
The Bulldogs have bounced back with some solid guard play from J.J. Frazier, Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann — who combine for 39.5 points per game — and a strong inside presence in 6-foot-8 forward Yante Maten, who’s getting 16.2 points and 7.9 rebounds a game.
All four were around last season for LSU’s thrilling 87-84 double-overtime win in the PMAC.
The guards are certainly a concern for Jones.
“They have experience, guys who are all-conference caliber guys and have played a certain level and have been a part of the success there at Georgia,” he said. “All three of those guys have been able to provide that for them. They are the veteran leaders on that team. … They are big time threats to play against.”
They’re also good enough to ensure LSU doesn’t start thinking about the matchup with Oklahoma a little too early.
“Every team that we play is going to bring on its own challenges,” Jones said. “We know how tough this conference is night-in and night-out. Georgia will present that for us.
“Our attention will not turn to Oklahoma until late Tuesday evening,” he said. “Our guys understand that, and that’s going to be really important we approach it that way. If not, it can sting you, and we understand that.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.