With the opening game of the LSU men’s basketball season coming hours before the football team’s homecoming game, fans who broke away from their tailgate parties Saturday afternoon were able to get a taste of coach Trent Johnson’s new-look Tigers free of charge.
They may have left wanting more.
Three freshmen making their college debuts combined for 39 points, leading seven LSU players in double figures to highlight a 96-74 victory over Nicholls State before 7,124 nonpaying fans.
Point guard Anthony Hickey, Mr. Basketball in Kentucky last year, led all scorers with 14 points to go with five assists and four steals. McDonald’s All-American Johnny O’Bryant III had 12 points along with a game-high eight rebounds and blocked two shots. Former Pickering standout John Isaac broke loose for 13 points, making two of three attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.
Junior center Justin Hamilton, making his first appearance as a Tiger after sitting out 2010-11 to satisfy NCAA residency requirements, had 11 points and four assists.
“Obviously, the kids were looking forward to playing someone else other than themselves,” Johnson said. “The impact the three freshmen had along with the returnees, in terms of being a cohesive unit, was very impressive.”
Hickey became the first true freshman to start at point guard for LSU since Torris Bright did it 12 years earlier.
Finding his groove from a spot just right of the top of the key, he knocked down a trio of 3-pointers and looked comfortable running the offense.
“When coach told me I was starting, my heart kind of jumped,” he said.
O’Bryant came off the bench, but wasted little time showing the Pete Maravich Assembly Center crowd why he came out of East Side High in Cleveland, Miss., as one of the nation’s top big men. Entering with 16:16 to play in the first half, O’Bryant scored eight points, blocked two shots and grabbed three rebounds in a little more than four minutes of play.
He hit Nicholls with a turnaround jump shot on one possession and snaked through the lane for a lay-up on another.
On defense, he stood strong against Shane Rilleux to draw a charge call.
“I wish it would have never ended,” O’Bryant said of the memorable four-minute stretch. “It was great for being my first time on the floor.”
Isaac has been lauded for his defensive exploits, but showed off his jump shot in his first game representing his favorite boyhood school.
“It was awesome,” he said.
The play of the youngsters played a big role in helping LSU avenge one of its worst losses last season, a 62-53 defeat by the Colonels that snapped an 82-game home winning streak against Louisiana foes.
Nicholls again played LSU tough, leading as late as the 12:31 mark of first half and pulling as close as 77-67 in the second half. The Tigers simply had too much offense.
Working the Colonels inside-out, LSU shot 45.8 percent from 3-point range and had 20 assists with only nine turnovers.
The 96 points were the most for the Tigers in regulation since a 96-42 victory over Nicholls early in the 2006-07 season. It was only the fourth time in Johnson’s four seasons LSU notched 90 points.
“I don’t get caught up in revenge,” Johnson said. “That’s not me. If you look at Nicholls any differently than you look at who might be the best team in the country, shame on you as a competitor. All we’ve ever talked about is our execution and what we’re going to do. I don’t get caught up in revenge.”
LSU led 51-40 at halftime - coming one basket shy of matching its total output in last year’s loss - and stayed ahead by double figures the rest of the way. A 3-pointer by Eddie Ludwig with 2:10 remaining put the Tigers up 96-69, and by then all 12 of LSU’s scholarship players had scored at least once.
With 1:33 left, Johnson called a substitution timeout to get walk-on Andrew Del Piero some action.
Del Piero failed to score, but the former LSU tuba player got a roar from the crowd every time he touched the ball.
“I’m glad people came out to support us,” O’Bryant said. “And we’re going to make sure we continue to give them a show.”