One-point margins are thin lines with which to draw conclusions.
The LSU Tigers’ 64-63 basketball victory Saturday over Missouri in a tense, taut thriller inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center is a prime example. Yes, LSU won. It also easily could have lost if Missouri hadn’t been so ham-handed, clanking a good half-dozen makeable shots around the rim and going a woeful 7-of-17 from the free-throw line. The latter was a stunning number for the second-best free throw-shooting team in the Southeastern Conference, coming in at better than 75 percent.
But it isn’t just fortune lending a favorable nudge LSU’s way by pushing Kassius Robertson’s potential game-winning basket out of the cylinder in the game’s closing seconds. These things even up, and the LSU Tigers are doing too many good things not to be rewarded from time to time for their efforts.
Yes, this season has had a definite one step forward, one step back quality to it. And building significant momentum has been hard. The Tigers have not won back-to-back games since shocking Texas A&M and Arkansas in early January.
Those two wins, coming as they did on the road, cooked up an overheated sense of what LSU’s season could turn out to be. Three straight losses followed and became five losses in the next six, punctuated only by a second win over the Aggies.
Since then the Tigers have been on a win-loss-win-loss-win march. Not surprisingly, the three wins have come at home over Arkansas, Ole Miss and now Mizzou. But before anyone could get too charged up about where LSU was headed, double-digit losses at Florida and Alabama were huge potholes on the Tigers’ road to a postseason promised land.
Still, even if there hasn’t been an all out “Do you believe in miracles?” turn to this season for LSU, like a moment in “Hoosiers” where Jimmy Chitwood walks in off the street and says he’s ready to start going all Pete Maravich on Indiana high school basketball, there has been progress.
There’s progress evident in the Tigers’ ability to work the ball crisply for an open shot. Progress in rebounding — sometimes (LSU did outboard Mizzou 36-33 Saturday). And definitely progress on defense. LSU turned away Mizzou three times in the final minute, including twice in the last 5.2 seconds as Daryl Edwards took a heady charge just outside the semicircle from Robertson and then helped cut off Robertson from the basket after Edwards’ threw an inbounds pass that was deflected by Mizzou’s 6-foot-11 Jontay Porter.
“That’s what he does,” said Wade. He was referring to Edwards taking the charge, not committing a turnover. “This is the second time we’ve won on a game-winning charge, and Darryl Edwards has taken both of those.”
And, there’s progress in this neat little hobby first-year coach Will Wade’s team has of collecting top-50 RPI wins. Saturday’s victory was LSU’s seventh against current members of the NCAA RPI top 50: two against A&M, two against Arkansas, and one each over Houston, Michigan and now Mizzou. The Missouri win was one of LSU’s more impressive given the numbers (LSU moved up eight RPI spots to No. 75).
“It was similar to the Houston win,” Wade said. “We had some grit to us.”
Some guile, too. While center Duop Reath was playing only 28 minutes and going 1-for-7 from the field on a tender ankle, forward Aaron Epps nearly pulled off a double-double (12 points, nine rebounds).
Mostly, though, it was the Tremont Waters show. Though Mizzou threw forwards in the path of LSU’s freshman contortionist, Waters kept pulling up to splash jumpers or finding new and inventive angles with which to bank shots into the basket. With 19.8 seconds left, Waters angled a shot high off the glass and into the cylinder, a basket proven to be the game-winner and the last of his game-high 21 points.
“I tried to learn my lesson,” Wade said. “At Alabama I put him on the bench for a little while. I felt like we have to trust him a little bit more and try to learn a get a little bit better each time. Played (Aaron) Epps with fouls a little bit longer than I typically play him, so you have to trust those guys and let them play through it a little bit more. I tried to do that tonight.”
At 15-11 and 6-8 in SEC play, LSU has four conference games left: Vanderbilt at home Tuesday, Georgia and South Carolina on the road and Mississippi State at home. Four winnable/losable games. Four games that will determine whether LSU is a postseason team or not.
Winning all four seems long odds for the Tigers, who can occasionally slip into their old habits of running a rag-tag offense and not giving enough effort on defense. But three of four is doable. Three of four means 9-9 in the conference. It means 18 overall wins before the SEC tournament, a total that may send the NIT beckoning.
But it’s a fine line for LSU. Not between success and failure — this season should be deemed a success at this point — but between nowhere and somewhere.