It didn’t show early, but the LSU basketball team was back at full strength for Monday night’s nonconference game against Southern Mississippi.
Josh Gray was back running the Tigers’ offense at point guard after missing two games with a sprained right ankle, and Tim Quarterman returned to his sixth-man role after starting for Gray the past two games.
Still, it didn’t necessarily produce the best start of the season for the Tigers, who were playing for the first time in a week because of the Christmas holiday.
LSU missed its first nine shots from the floor, which allowed Southern Miss to take a seven-point lead twice in the first six-plus minutes before the Tigers got into a rhythm in front of a nice crowd in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
From there, LSU rolled to a 16-point halftime lead and withstood another run by Southern Miss in the second half for an 87-67 win.
“I think the layoff caused that a little bit,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said in explaining the sluggish start. “I thought we took some early shots. We had a size advantage, and we should have been playing inside-out.
“Once we moved the ball to the block, it forced their defense to switch,” he said. “Then, that got us the easy looks that we needed.”
It was the seventh victory in a row for LSU (10-2), marking the longest winning streak of Jones’ three-year tenure as the Tigers’ coach.
But it wasn’t easy — especially early on when USM (5-6) challenged LSU behind some solid play from Sulphur native Chip Armelin, who poured in a game- and career-high 28 points.
USM’s Davon Hayes scored eight quick points on a pair of 3-point shots, and Armelin had seven points, including a basket from beyond the arc to give their team a 15-8 lead with 13:55 to play in the first half.
LSU didn’t get its first basket until the 15:09 mark on guard Keith Hornsby’s steal and layup that seemed to jump-start the Tigers and send them on the way.
After Hayes’ second 3-point shot, LSU went on a 26-5 run that was capped by Jordan Mickey’s dunk with 5:33 to play in the first half for a 34-20 lead before the Tigers took a 49-33 advantage to the locker room.
Jarell Martin had 13 of his team-high 24 points in the first half, while Mickey had 11 and Hornsby 10.
Martin scored in double digits for the seventh consecutive game to go with nine rebounds, while Mickey and Quarterman each had a double-double.
Mickey had 14 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots. Quarterman finished with 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds — six more than his previous best.
Hornsby and Jalyn Patterson each had 10 points.
“Coach Jones told us that we had to go inside,” Mickey said of the Tigers’ rough start. “They had a small team, and we had to take advantage of that. We knew what we were capable of doing, and it was good to see some shots fall for us (after going 0-for-9).”
Thanks to their improved shooting, it wasn’t much of a game, even though USM came out aggressively and jumped in front early.
“We just tried to stay confident,” Quarterman said. “There was plenty of basketball left to play. We just did a better job of moving the ball around and creating open shots.”
Martin said some of that had to do with the return of Gray, who scored six points and had four assists in 27 minutes while battling leg cramps.
“It was good having Josh back, because he controls the team,” said Martin, who connected on 10 of 15 field-goal attempts. “We definitely had to work the ball through him outside to get us going inside.”
Hornsby, who scored all 10 of his points in the first half, had five points in a row after a three-point play on a dunk by Martin, who then had a putback basket to tie the game at 15 with 11:32 to play.
From there, LSU finally got its first lead of the night at 21-19 on a nice feed from Martin to Quarterman for a lay-in with 9:20 left in the first half.
After running the lead to 16 by halftime, LSU built the margin to as many as 23 points with 11:09 to play at 65-42 on a Martin jumper.
LSU needed those points as Southern Miss tried to hang around in the second half — primarily on Armelin’s career night back in his home state.
Armelin, who was recruited by Jones when he was the coach at North Texas and was also wooed by the LSU football team for his play as a wide receiver at Sulphur High, hit on 10 of 16 shots — including 6-of-8 from 3-point range.
His old career high was 20 points when he was playing for the University of Minnesota against Nebraska in 2012.
“I’ve been making shots and I came here with a good mindset,” Armelin said. “I played hard and just came here to play my game.”
“I thought he played an excellent game,” Jones said. “He shot the ball extremely well.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.