Facing a quick turnaround in the aftermath of a tough overtime loss to Missouri a week ago, it would’ve been easy for the LSU men’s basketball team to explain away the defeat in its Southeastern Conference opener on the perils of playing on the road.
In that game, LSU squandered an eight-point lead in the final eight minutes of regulation and then was blown out in overtime, when Missouri scored the final nine points to win going away.
They were just one game into conference play, and already one of the problems that kept the Tigers out of the NCAA tournament in 2014 — an inability to close out teams on the road — had shown up in a big way.
So, before facing Georgia at home last Saturday night, the Tigers talked about their shortcomings in an effort to avoid a repeat of last season, when they lost at Ole Miss, Alabama and Kentucky in similar fashion.
“We talked about it a lot … how important it is to finish these games,” guard Tim Quarterman said. “We had one (at Missouri) and should have won it but didn’t close it out. Then, they did a good job of closing us out when we went to overtime. We talked about going into games with that same mindset.”
They let another eight-point lead slip away against Georgia before prevailing in double-overtime, then produced another confidence-building win at Ole Miss on Wednesday.
LSU (13-3, 2-1) hopes being able to finish two games in a row will serve it well, home or away, starting with Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup against Texas A&M (10-6, 1-2) in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
That’s because, after its brunch date with Texas A&M, LSU will play at Florida on Tuesday and at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
“We wanted to go back on the road at Ole Miss and close a game out,” Quarterman said of the Missouri loss. “I thought we did a good job of it.”
After bolting to an 11-point lead less than three minutes into the second half, LSU survived several runs by Ole Miss in the final 14 minutes.
The Rebels trimmed the deficit to one point three times, the last with 6:26 remaining, and tied it once but could never overtake the Tigers.
“We got up by 11, but Ole Miss came storming back and played really well,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We had to regroup and play extremely hard to get the lead back, but I thought down the stretch with the lead we did a great job getting some defensive stops, which were important. We were able to get to the free-throw line and again knock some crucial free throws down.”
Quarterman said remaining positive in the face of the Missouri loss definitely helped at Ole Miss.
“We were disappointed in ourselves because we let that opportunity at Missouri slip away,” he said. “But we didn’t want that next opportunity to slip away. We focus on those scenarios now in practice.”
As a result, even with the loss to Missouri, Quarterman and two of his teammates who suffered through those struggles last season said this year already seems different.
“It feels a lot different,” he said. “We had that same opportunity at Ole Miss last year, but we lost the lead and lost in overtime.”
They know there will be more nail-biters in the SEC, when games are won or lost on one possession. Unlike the Missouri game, when no one took over on offense, Quarterman came up with huge plays in two overtimes against Georgia and guard Keith Hornsby made several key plays late to fend off Ole Miss.
“It’s big when we have guys that can step up and close out the game for us,” forward Jarell Martin said. “Last year, we struggled to close out games. But this year, the whole team knows how important it is.”
“We probably haven’t closed them out the way we wanted to,” forward Jordan Mickey said of the Georgia and Ole Miss games, “but it’s the fact that we have done it and we have been able to get the win. That’s big. ... We just have to continue to learn from it and try to learn how to close these games out.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.