Tigers’ NCAA tournament hopes take a major hit in 81-65 loss at Tennessee _lowres

LSU head coach Johnny Jones protests a call by a referee during an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. Tennessee won 81-65. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The rising frustration level for the LSU men’s basketball team reached its zenith with 13 minutes, 36 seconds to play in Saturday’s game against short-handed Tennessee.

LSU was already well on its way to further damaging its NCAA tournament hopes with a third loss in four Southeastern Conference games when a wide-open Ben Simmons jumped near the basket to take a pass from Craig Victor for what should have been a gimme layup.

But, as we’ve found out the past couple of weeks, there are no gimmes for this LSU team.

Instead of softly dropping through the net, the ball struck the back iron, then skidded off the rim and landed in the arms of the nearest Tennessee defender, Shembari Phillips. As Phillips cradled the unexpected prize, Simmons reached in and hacked him across the forearm for a needless foul.

Just six seconds later, Tennessee got a dunk on the other end, and its 17-point lead spoke volumes for how it was going to be the rest of the evening in LSU’s 81-65 setback — the Tigers’ worst loss of the season.

“Losing is frustrating, so everybody’s going to be frustrated — from coaches to managers to walk-ons, everybody,” Tigers guard Antonio Blakeney said when asked about the team’s frustration level. “Losing is frustrating — period.”

Indeed, the game was a microcosm of LSU’s woes, which have become magnified since it grabbed a one-game lead in the SEC race: spotty offensive execution, poor defense, an inability to keep teams off the offensive glass and careless turnovers.

Add to that frustration the loss of guard Keith Hornsby to an injury late in the first half Saturday, and it’s easy to see why the Tigers’ once-high hopes for an NCAA tournament at-large bid are hanging by a thread.

Hornsby, who missed the first seven games this season after sports hernia surgery, appeared to reach for his abdomen when he got to the bench area to be checked by trainer Shawn Eddy.

On Sunday, coach Johnny Jones said Hornsby was scheduled to see a doctor and that there was no timetable for his return.

Whether Hornsby returns for the final four regular-season games or not, LSU (16-11, 9-5) has to find some answers in a hurry — especially with another road test coming Tuesday at Arkansas — to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive.

Jones said Saturday he didn’t believe the pressure of having to make a late-season run after going 7-6 in the nonconference part of the schedule was affecting his team.

“No, I just don’t think we’re as locked in, possibly, as we were earlier,” he said, referring to a four-game winning streak in league play that put the Tigers in first place just two weeks ago. “I don’t think we had the (offensive) flow we normally play with tonight.”

Playing listlessly against a Tennessee team that was without its best player — guard Kevin Punter, who averages 22.2 points — didn’t help things, although Jones said he warned his team that the Vols had defeated Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky on the same floor.

Jones admitted that he sensed frustration from his players when things started going poorly again.

“They really want to win. ... They want to win bad,” he said. “But to be able to win, you’ve got to be at a certain level in terms of having the ability to focus and concentrate.”

Getting the focus and concentration needed with games at Arkansas and Kentucky sandwiched around home games with Florida and Missouri will be tough, to be sure.

The good news, Jones said, is that his team is tied with South Carolina and Texas A&M for second in the SEC — just one game behind first-place Kentucky — with those four games and the SEC tournament left.

That’s why he’s not listening to any talk about LSU’s RPI, which dropped to 89 on Sunday, or the Tigers being erased from the brackets of national prognosticators.

“Winning is important to me, so that’s our preparation,” Jones said. “We’ll always prepare; that’s what I get caught up in and focus on and (put) time and attention into. If you do that, you put yourself in a great spot.

“We were (8-6) at this time last year (in the SEC), and today we’re 9-5. We have a chance to do some good things; we’ve just got to make sure we try to win these games down the stretch that are in front of us.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.