A knock-your-eyes-out beautiful Saturday afternoon outside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center belied the knockout nature of the game being played inside.
These were the desperate hours for LSU and Texas A&M. Both teams coming off Southeastern Conference losses — in the case of the Aggies, four of them in a row — while off to the east they could hear the faint crashing sounds of Kentucky taking a wrecking ball to South Carolina’s share of first place in the SEC.
The Cats are a-comin’ on, but the Tigers will deal with a rematch with them later. Same for their NCAA tournament hopes, which hang on a thread of differing thickness depending on which day it is and to which “bracketologist” you subscribe.
Suffice to say it was a thinner strand after LSU’s 94-83 loss Wednesday at South Carolina. According to a New York Post writer who took part in this year’s NCAA tournament mock selection media exercise last week in Indianapolis, LSU was the last at-large team left out of their faux field, getting bumped out by Monmouth.
Yes, Monmouth. When you’re trafficking with teams from the Metro Atlantic for your NCAA life, you’re on life support.
So it was no time for a two-game slide for LSU. Not with Alabama (which has won four straight SEC games) and Florida still coming to town, not with trips to Arkansas and Kentucky still ahead among the Tigers’ remaining six. The Aggies, who in January looked like the sturdy and strong veteran team and a trendy choice to win the SEC, were in no position to fall two full games behind LSU and Kentucky in the title chase, either, knowing full well at this point in the game their chances of reeling in both of them were long odds.
What resulted was a battle of contrasting styles — the Tigers’ SEC-leading scoring offense against the Aggies’ SEC-best scoring defense — but identical senses of urgency.
Style would cancel each other out, you had to figure. That left determination and guts and effort.
Spurred on by a rollicking crowd of nearly 13,000 LSU fans (minus one high-perched section of boisterous A&M rooters), the Tigers expended the greatest effort. Showed the most desire. Delivered the last punch in a prize fight of a game that finally left the exhausted Aggies — who have been getting everyone’s best shot since that 7-0 SEC start — with their arms dragging at their sides.
This column has been the launching point for plenty of criticism of the Tigers over the past couple of years for too often failing to play with a sense of urgency, an unwillingness to get their hands dirty or leave a little skin on the hardwood.
One look at the bright red strawberry on the back of Keith Hornsby’s right shoulder — a badge of honor earned for a major scrum midway through the second half that typified LSU’s fight on this Saturday — said the Tigers came to play. That they cared. That they wanted it, or were at least able to go get it, a little better than the Aggies could.
“You have to be the best on every possession,” said guard Tim Quarterman, who contributed nine points, five rebounds and a lot of defense. “I think we had a lot of great possessions tonight offensively and defensively.”
Despite A&M’s grinding defense, LSU could have coasted to victory were it not for at least a half-dozen maddening misses around the basket. The missed “chippies” add weight to the argument of those who still don’t believe in these Tigers. SEC Network analyst Barry Booker, calling Alabama’s 61-55 win Saturday at Florida, pegged LSU’s final SEC record at 12-6. That would mean a modest 3-3 finish for the Tigers, certain to end their hopes of an SEC title.
Clearly LSU is a team that plays to the level of its competition. The Tigers need not get dragged down in another slugfest with an Alabama team that struggles to score (13th in the SEC entering Saturday in scoring offense) but was a respectable fifth in scoring defense. An Alabama team that still ranked well ahead of LSU in Saturday’s pregame RPI (LSU was 78th, Bama was 46th and A&M was 23rd) and will be fighting to keep its own NCAA dreams alive Wednesday.
But the Tigers have their eyes on a more pressing prize: the SEC regular-season title. With six games to go, LSU couldn’t have asked to be in a better spot than to be tied for first, especially after its pothole-filled 7-5 pre-conference record.
“That’s first,” said Craig Victor, who scored 14 of his 16 points in a second half that may well have been the most critical of the season. “That would bring back the tradition to our school.”
It is the cause that may bring a little needed motivation to LSU’s efforts in an unpredictable but compelling stretch run to the regular season.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.