There were times Wednesday night when the LSU men’s basketball team looked like a runaway winner waiting to happen.
The Tigers led South Alabama by 10 points at halftime and controlled the first 12 minutes or so of the second half, using their hot shooting from the outside and their advantage in physical talent to keep their home crowd’s worries to a minimum.
But LSU never pulled away. And South Alabama never went away.
Storming from behind to force overtime on Freddie Goldstein’s last-gasp jumper at the buzzer, the Jaguars kept the momentum alive in the extra frame, stunning the 6,721 fans at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in a 79-75 upset.
“They outworked us, and we need to take ownership of that,” LSU guard Ralston Turner said. “We came out flat. We didn’t make plays down the stretch. Give them credit. They outworked us.”
LSU failed to capitalize on the momentum the Tigers found in winning their final two games at the Charleston Classic, where victories over Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech eliminated some of the sting from a loss at Coastal Carolina early last week.
Despite shooting 47.1 percent from 3-point range, the Tigers (3-3) couldn’t overcome a sloppy performance marked by defensive lapses, 68.8 percent shooting from the free-throw line and a 42-31 whipping by the smaller Jaguars on the boards.
“That certainly wasn’t the team that was in Charleston,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said. “I wish I had an explanation for you, but I don’t want to take anything away from South Alabama.”
USA (2-2) was coming off an 80-39 loss to Florida State its last time out. The Jaguars in the preseason were picked to finish four in the Sun Belt Conference’s six-team East Division.
Last year, the Tigers won 80-65 in Mobile.
This one appeared to be headed in a similar direction after Andre Stringer helped LSU turn a four-point deficit midway through the first half into a 34-24 lead, spurring an 18-4 run with 10 points during a six-minute stretch.
The Tigers, up 41-31 at the break, led 50-38 with 15:30 left. They led 61-50 at the 8-minute mark.
But Augustine Rubit and Xavier Roberson got hot late as the Jaguars went on a 29-14 spurt that began with 7:37 to go in regulation and extended through overtime. After a thunderous Storm Warren dunk with 2:49 to play in regulation, LSU didn’t get another basket until Justin Hamilton scored on a putback with two seconds left in overtime.
Rubit finished with 20 points and Roberson with 19. Javier Carter, who at 6-foot-6 joined Rubit as USA’s tallest starters, had 11 points to go with a game-high 10 rebounds.
Backcourt mates Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey led the way for LSU, scoring 20 and 13 points, respectively, and combining for 10 assists. Ralston Turner had 13 points and Hamilton added 11.
“We were rushing a little bit,” Hickey said. “We need to learn how to play under control as a team and not gamble on shots.”
Even after giving away the big lead late, the Tigers still were in good position to escape with the win when Goldstein went to the foul line with USA trailing by three and 19 seconds to play.
Goldstein made the first free throw, but the second rimmed out.
That’s when Roberson made perhaps the biggest play of the game, saving a loose ball and tossing it off LSU freshman Johnny O’Bryant III out of bounds to give USA one last shot down by two.
An inbounds pass from Wendell Wright with 16 seconds left eventually found its way to Goldstein at the top of the key.
Unable to shake Hickey as he worked his way inside the 3-point line, Goldstein fired up a fade-away jumper from the right wing that swished the net in front of LSU’s student section as time expired.
The Tigers couldn’t get off the mat in the extra frame.
Back-to-back jumpers by Roberson turned a 71-71 tie into a four-point lead with 2:22 left in overtime. The Jaguars were up by four again after Rubit’s long 2-pointer gave LSU’s offense possession with 25 seconds to play.
But after Turner missed a pair of 3-point tries, the Tigers had to settle for the Hamilton putback with two seconds left.
Goldstein then drained two free throws for the final margin.
“I don’t want to say it is early, but it is early,” Johnson said. ‘We will come out on Friday at 7 a.m. and get after it and then Saturday and Sunday, too.”