OXFORD, Miss. — It felt almost too good to be true, the LSU basketball team holding a nine-point lead on the road with a little more than 10 minutes to play Tuesday night.
Then, almost as quickly as you thought the Tigers had a chance to finally snap a nasty 11-game losing streak, it turned out that it was too good to be true.
It was at that point that Ole Miss, which three nights earlier overcame a 20-point halftime deficit to slip past Auburn, seemingly realized it had let LSU hang around for too long.
After Ole Miss outscored LSU 39-10 in the final 10 minutes and 15 seconds, an outburst capped by a 17-0 run to end the game, the Rebels were able to let out a sigh of relief and celebrate a 96-76 win despite being on the short end of the score for almost 26 minutes.
The decisive surge nearly coincided with the last of Antonio Blakeney’s 29 points, a 3-point basket with 12:42 to go that pushed LSU’s lead to 61-51.
It was the second double-digit cushion of the half for the excited Tigers, who came out of the locker room with eight unanswered points to pad a three-point halftime advantage and stun the crowd in The Pavilion at Ole Miss.
But a switch to a 1-3-1 zone by Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy helped stymie Blakeney the rest of the way, which similarly affected his teammates.
“Believe it or not, the game plan was to try to do that the whole game,” Kennedy said. “LSU has had its struggles. I know they’re talented. The one thing that you can’t do is you can’t give them much life or hope.”
The Tigers had both for a while, thanks to a strong first half in which Blakeney put his team on his shoulders early.
He scored 15 of LSU’s first 24 points in the opening 10 minutes, then added seven more before halftime to spark the Tigers’ highest-scoring first half of the season when they raced to the locker room with a 47-44 lead.
“We knew it was going to be through him,” Kennedy said of Blakeney, who was 9 of 12 from the floor in the first half and 10 of 14 before missing his final three attempts. “We let him get touches and drive us. He started making shots.
“The rest of their team started playing with that same confidence.”
Especially freshman guard Skylar Mays.
He nearly matched Blakeney’s aggressive play in the first half when he scored 13 points in going 4 of 6 from the field and making all four of his free-throw attempts.
But Mays and Blakeney combined to take just four shots in the final 10-plus minutes when Ole Miss started taking over.
During the stretch in which they were outscored 39-10, LSU was 2 of 11 from the field and committed seven turnovers. The Tigers had just seven in the first half and five in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
All told, Blakeney and Mays were a combined 16 of 27 from the field, while the rest of the team was 9 of 31 — which contributed to its 28.0 percent shooting in the second period.
Part of the problem was Ole Miss’ defensive changeup.
“Skylar Mays was terrific … those two kids were really having their way with us,” Kennedy said. “We tried to stay attached to him as much as possible. We moved the 1-3-1 back, which allowed the wings to stay attached to him so he couldn’t catch it off the initial pass.
“LSU leads for 25 minutes of the game and gets beat by 20 … it was crazy. They got a little fatigued.”
When they were fresh, they made it interesting.
“We had a nice flow going to be able to get in there at halftime with an advantage,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “In the second half, we came back out and didn’t get in a rhythm scoring.
“We were good enough on the defensive end to maintain a lead by getting stops. Unfortunately, as the game played out, the rhythm wasn’t there for us. We got a little hesitant and allowed them the freedom to play and knock down some big shots late in the game.”