As the players lumbered up the tunnel Saturday, exhaustion muted the jubilation on LSU’s sweat-doused faces minutes after their 97-94, triple-overtime victory snatched from Alabama’s clutches at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Shavon Coleman strode back down a ramp, pausing to meet forward Johnny O’Bryant and offering an affirming fist thump on the sophomore’s broad shoulder. Turning into the hallway leading to the Tigers’ locker room, guard Andre Stringer slowly peeled up his jersey to wipe his brow.
At the sycamore door leading into the locker room, assistant coach Charlie Leonard shepherded guard Anthony Hickey into the doorway but paused for a short refrain before it shut.
“Sometimes it only takes one play to make it all work,” Leonard said.
On Saturday, Leonard’s estimate was modest for the Tigers (16-9, 7-7 Southeastern), who scrambled from a 10-point deficit in the final three minutes of regulation; saw Rodney Cooper’s potentially game-winning tip-in nullified after a video review to force a second overtime; then looked on flabbergasted after Cooper buried a pull-up 3-pointer to wearily head into a third.
Three weeks removed from a three-point loss to the Crimson Tide (18-9, 10-4) in Tuscaloosa, coach Johnny Jones pumped his fists to the 8,200 who bellowed for three hours and through 13 lead changes in the PMAC’s first triple-overtime tilt.
“We just kept fighting,” said senior guard Charles Carmouche, who responded from an in-game benching at Tennessee for 20 points and 11 rebounds. “We knew we should have won one back in Alabama earlier in the season. We pretty much owed them this one.”
It took a pair of free throws from O’Bryant, who overcame a quiet first half to score a team-high 24 points, with 7.4 seconds left in triple overtime to give LSU a 96-92 lead, and he split another pair with 3.6 seconds left to salt away the victory.
The Tigers, who shot 46.1 percent, moved ahead when O’Bryant converted a feed from Hickey for a layup and a 91-90 lead with 2:18 to go. On the next trip, Carmouche drove to the free-throw line and kicked to Hickey in the left corner for a 3-pointer and a four-point lead with 1:20 remaining.
An ill-timed foul of Releford by Coleman with 5.6 seconds left allowed the Tide to close within 96-94, but O’Bryant’s final trips to the line secured a win after he played 51 minutes and Carmouche endured 54.
“It’s a character builder,” Jones said. “You put yourself in position and never feel like you’re out of games. You can continue to battle, and we can always look at it as a resource down the road.”
Tenacity was needed with three minutes left in regulation as LSU trailed 69-59.
The comeback started quietly: two free throws by Carmouche with 2:52 left. Forty-one seconds later, Coleman, whose 16 points floated LSU until O’Bryant got going in extra time, notched two more. On the bench, Hickey was summoned after sitting nine minutes because Jones felt his star point guard wasn’t assertive enough.
“It was just a decision I had to make because he was playing hesitant,” Jones said. “ I had to get him out and allow him to look at the game a little bit. He hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Pressuring the inbounds play with Hickey, the SEC steals leader, paid dividends. After Coleman pressured Trevor Lacey beneath the rim, Hickey darted in front of the inbounds pass for the steal, calling a timeout before falling out of bounds.
O’Bryant then re-engaged, splitting a Cooper and Nick Jacobs double team along the baseline for a driving layup with two minutes left to cut the lead to 69-65, ushering in a 17-minute stretch when he scored 14 of LSU’s next 32 points.
“Alabama did a great job sending double teams,” said O’Bryant, who added 11 rebounds for his 12th double-double of the season. “I started waiting on the double team instead of going right away. In the second half, I got more aggressive.”
Fittingly, O’Bryant’s two free throws tied it with 54.1 seconds left. Yet he missed an open look that could have spared LSU almost another half of action.
Setting a pick at the top of the key, O’Bryant flared off after Carmouche was double-teamed on a drive near the free-throw line, but his 15-foot jumper from the right wing thumped off the back rim with 2.1 seconds to go.
“Johnny had an opportunity to roll back toward the basket but did a great job spotting up, had a great look at it,” Jones said. “I thought that one was going down for us.”
Alabama, which shot 46.1 percent, had its bid to end the rivalry battle at the horn fall apart in the first overtime.
Releford, who scored 36 points but was held scoreless in the final seven minutes of regulation, missed a pull-up floater on the left block with 1.5 seconds left. On the right block, Cooper got his right hand on a tip-in with 0.3 seconds left, and the Tide barrelled upcourt to encircle Cooper. But an official review waved off the bucket, and the game trudged into a second overtime.
“My face just dropped,” Carmouche said. “I thanked God at that point when they were waving it off.”
It was an extra period that Carmouche said Bama was loath to endure.
“They were pretty much satisfied,” he said. “A guy — I don’t even know his name — he was standing next to me, and he didn’t want to play. Every time he came in for a tip he was like, ‘Can this game be over?’ ”
No, it couldn’t.
Releford finally broke through in the second overtime with a driving three-point play to pull Bama even at 83 with 1:44 left. Cooper, who added 18 points and nine rebounds, salvaged the Tide’s flagging fortunes, puling up for a 3-pointer on the left wing with 15.9 seconds left in the second overtime to tie it again after Coleman played him to drive the ball.
Stringer missed an open 3 in the left corner, and Hickey came up with the rebound on the baseline before dribbling out the left with 1.8 seconds left. Rising up, Hickey’s 3-pointer hit off the back iron.
Ultimately, LSU exacted its vengeance — a desire that took longer than anticipated to sate — in the third overtime.
“We remember what they did to us (in a) tight game at their place,” Stringer said. “We wanted to make a statement.”