No one argued with Keith Hornsby on Tuesday when he said the LSU basketball team wasn’t exactly showing its teeth during a stretch in which his Tigers dropped four of five games.
“(We’re) about as tough as a teddy bear right now,” he said.
It may have been more difficult for Hornsby to say it then to play through it — which he did for the first time in a 105-98 overtime loss at Houston on Sunday.
One night later, he and his LSU teammates went out and played with an edge that’s been seldom seen this season.
It helped produce a much-needed 78-57 victory over Gardner-Webb in which the Tigers held an opponent to season-lows in three important categories: points, rebounds and field-goal percentage.
“We were like Transformers,” a smiling Hornsby said. “It was like Optimus Prime and the crew.”
Indeed, the Tigers were transformed from a team that had been giving up too many easy baskets and was out-rebounded in six of its first eight games to one that picked it up on the defensive end and swept the glass for a season-high 54 rebounds.
In other words, they played with a sense of urgency after falling to 4-4 with the Houston loss.
“We definitely did,” Hornsby said of getting things straightened out in short order after their latest setback. “We were just blessed with some new games, some new opportunities, to fix issues that have been a big problem in the past.”
In addition to holding Gardner-Webb to 57 points, the Tigers had a plus-19 in the rebounding column and limited the Runnin’ Bulldogs to just 33.3 percent shooting from the field.
Playing in just his second game back after having sports hernia surgery in early November, Hornsby was one of the ringleaders of that improved defense along with forward Craig Victor II, who was making his LSU debut.
While it was only one game against a Gardner-Webb team that fell to 4-7, it was exactly what the Tigers needed at the time.
There’s no question they needed some defense and rebounding, which Victor helped provide.
Even though he hadn’t played a game before Wednesday night, it was obvious Victor was tired of hearing how the Tigers couldn’t defend or rebound the ball consistently well.
“We work at it every day. ... We work on the rebounding, we work on defense,” he said. “It’s just (carrying) it over to game situations. You can practice all day; we have to be able to do a better job taking it to games.”
Victor had 10 points and five rebounds, but he showed several times how he can be a help on both ends of the floor.
The 6-foot-9 forward scored his first field goal shortly after entering the game with 15:26 to play in the first half, then had an offensive rebound, a steal and a 3-point basket — all in less than five minutes of playing time to help turn an 11-6 lead into a 22-10 advantage.
Victor started the second half and continued his solid play on the defensive end. He forced Gardner-Webb leading scorer Tyrell Nelson to travel a little more than two minutes into the half and about 1½ minutes later forced Nelson to take a poor shot.
Nelson, who was averaging 14.3 points per game, scored just seven against the Tigers and had six rebounds.
“You could just see his strength … you could feel it,” Hornsby said of Victor. “The other guys were bouncing off him. That’s exactly what we were hoping to get. For his first game, I thought he did a great job coming in there and he did what we needed him to do.”
Now that they seemingly got some things ironed out, LSU coach Johnny Jones said his team has to build on it.
“We have to keep growing as a team … it’s a process for our guys and it’s a journey for us,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a learning experience each night for these guys, and I think they learned some things tonight about the team and each other and how effective we can be.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.