PITTSBURGH — Like so many times this season, the LSU men’s basketball team that gave us up-tempo, high-flying, slam-dunking thrills showed up Thursday night in its NCAA tournament opener.
But like a few other times in this mind-boggling year, after 30 minutes of crowd-pleasing dunks and impressive outside shooting, we saw that same team lose its way when it needed one more field goal, a couple of free throws, one defensive stop — almost anything — to finish off the opponent.
This one came at the worst possible time considering the finality that accompanied a gut-wrenching, 66-65 setback to N.C. State in a NCAA tournament second-round game.
For the second time in just seven days, LSU (21-11) had a prolonged dry spell from the field that cost the Tigers a game they should have won — this time putting an end to their up-and-down season.
Losing to Auburn in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament was one thing; watching a 14-point lead evaporate in the final nine minutes in the NCAA tournament — the school’s first appearance in six seasons — was something else.
While the losses to Auburn and N.C. State were strikingly similar, especially with missed free throws, they were just the latest collapses for an LSU team that will look back later and think about having a chance to win several more games.
“Throughout the year, we’ve given up some leads, but in this game we never had that in our minds,” guard Keith Hornsby said. “They just made some spectacular plays to get the lead down over the course of the second half.”
The heartbreaker was a left-handed hook shot deep in the lane by N.C. State’s BeeJay Anya with 0.1 seconds left, and it came after LSU forced leading scorer Trevor Lacey to give up the ball after entering the paint.
It didn’t look pretty, and it wasn’t the way N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried drew it up during a timeout, but it was effective when LSU couldn’t buy a basket down the stretch.
Unfortunately, the one that will stick out is a missed jumper from point-blank range by All-SEC forward Jordan Mickey with 27 seconds left. LSU was trying to extend a one-point lead when Mickey, who had just missed four consecutive free throws, drove the baseline but couldn’t convert.
“He’s been playing through a lot of pain and a lot of injuries,” forward Jarell Martin said of his frontcourt partner. “He’s been down for the last couple of games, and we knew how tough it was on him. … I know he’s hurting right now.”
“People will look at Jordan’s last shot and think it’s easy, but it’s not in that type of pressure situation,” Hornsby said. “Free throws are never easy down the stretch in pressure situations.”
Nothing at all fell for the Tigers in crunch time.
Against Auburn last week, LSU went the final 8 minutes, 27 seconds of regulation without a field goal — helping Auburn get the game to overtime and giving it a chance to pull off a stunning win.
Thursday night’s game was even more shocking considering what was at stake. With a chance to reach the third round of the tournament, where it would get a shot at East region top seed Villanova on Saturday, LSU’s last made basket came at the 10:26 mark of the second half.
The Tigers, who were 7-of-12 from the field in the second half before going cold, got only four shots off in the final 5½ minutes. If that wasn’t enough, they missed their last six free throws, making any of which certainly could have helped them move on in the bracket.
As LSU let a sizable lead slip away, the game looked and smelled a lot like losses to Missouri, Texas A&M (twice) and Kentucky — especially No. 1 Kentucky, which LSU had on the ropes before it failed to score in the final 3:50.
LSU coach Johnny Jones said he didn’t feel like his team got too tentative or tight, and it wasn’t playing not to lose.
“I thought we did a great job staying extremely aggressive,” he said. “Unfortunately, shots didn’t go in. We missed some shots right around the basket. We were playing very physical around the rim.
“Even late, we got close enough to shoot layups. … Didn’t fall for us.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.