Toeing the foul line, LSU guard Malik Morgan lifted his chin and eyes and heaved a deep breath before lofting two chances to draw LSU even with struggling Georgia.
Trailing 43-41 midway through the second half, LSU’s wheezing half-court offense dragged itself back into contention behind a pestering and nagging full-court press, forcing Georgia to waste possessions before harried guards reached half court.
Now, a pair of free throws could tip momentum as LSU tried to avert an 0-4 start in the Southeastern Conference.
The first? It rimmed out.
The second? It thumped off the side of the iron, snared out of the air by Bulldogs forward Brandon Morris in an eventual 67-58 Tigers’ loss.
Despite forcing 16 turnovers, LSU generated only eight points for a team sitting near the bottom of the SEC in points per game, field-goal percentage and scoring margin.
“We didn’t convert the turnovers that we had, and a high enough percentage of them to make a big difference against them with all the steals that we had in that game,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said.
Flummoxed by zone defenses and settling for jumpers, the press could remain a useful tool for LSU (9-6, 0-4) to get into the open floor at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Texas A&M (12-5, 2-2), whose deliberate style was disrupted when it helped Alabama rally Saturday for a victory in Tuscaloosa.
“Alabama had some success with that in the second half,” Aggies coach Billy Kennedy said. “There was one spurt that basically won them the game.”
Yet the decision for Jones is muddled by a spate of injuries leaving an already thin roster in need of mending. The Tigers’ backcourt is without guard Charles Carmouche, who is battling knee tendinitis, and Corban Collins after the freshman was kneed in the face diving for a loose ball.
And it also poses a vexing conundrum: For a coach that wants to play fast, how much pressing can the Tigers afford before fatigue besets a short bench?
“We have to use our timeouts in a fashion that our guys are going to have an opportunity to get breaks as well,” Jones said. “One thing we don’t want them to do is rest on the floor and taking plays off. That’s very dangerous at this level.”
So far, LSU plays the second-fastest pace in the SEC, averaging 68.4 possessions per game. The press has proven effective, such as generating a 9-0 run in less than a minute to slice into a 22-point deficit during the second half of a 74-52 loss on Jan. 12 to Florida. On Saturday, the switch against Georgia could have also generated points.
“We use the press really effectively, and we’ve been able to speed teams up,” Morgan said. “That’s not the game they want to play against us. It forces them into some poor decisions and gets us some turnovers.”
Bulldogs sophomore shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and freshman point guard Charles Mann combined for eight turnovers, including five in the second half while being badgered by Hickey — one of the nation’s leaders in steals.
That’s a boon, considering Georgia coach Mark Fox expected the Tigers to fluster the duo.
“We probably weren’t as organized as we’d like to have been,” Fox said Monday. “LSU’s speed and quickness makes their press pretty good. When they choose to do it, they can be good at it.”
As for whether the cumulative effect of pressing for 13 minutes wore down LSU, which led 47-45 with 11:10 left to play, it’s harder to tell. Knotted at 54-54 with 4:41 to go, Georgia closed the game on a 9-2 spurt over three minutes.
That observation didn’t strike Fox.
“Eventually we were able to become more stable in our attack of it,” Fox said. “I wasn’t paying great attention to their individual players, but it is hard when you don’t have great depth to do that full time or for an extended period of time.”
And Stringer was adamant LSU wasn’t overly sensitive to how its stamina was faring in the waning minutes.
“You’re in the heat of the game,” said Stringer, who played 32 minutes. “We can rest after the game. We’re going to give it our all for 40 minutes. And if coach wants us to press for the whole game, we can.”
With a rotation culled to only seven players seeing at least 10 minutes a game, Jones may exercise more discretion against the Aggies, who average only 61 offensive trips per game — 11th-fewest in NCAA Division I.
“I think it’s probably going to dictate the flow of the game if we’ll be able to do that or not,” Jones said.
Yet it’s unlikely Jones will throttle down too much. In his 11-year career, Jones’ teams have never averaged below 68.4 possessions per game, and LSU is on track for a pace similar to his first season at North Texas in 2003.
But balancing a reasonable distribution of minutes against a philosophy dedicated to an up-tempo style is a familiar one.
In stops at UAB and Missouri, current Arkansas coach Mike Anderson faced the same issue as Jones: A thin roster but a commitment to a punishing pace.
Last season, though, the Razorbacks suffered key injuries to former forward Michael Sanchez and guard Marvell Waithe, while current forward Marshawn Powell went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Anderson didn’t slow down — Arkansas ran the 24th-fastest pace in the NCAA — but had to make tweaks to delay stripping the gears off his players.
“I don’t think when you’re playing pressure defense or up-tempo, it’s not feast or famine,” Anderson said Monday. “ I’ve always been the mindset that we want to be unpredictable, and you don’t know when or where it’s going to take place or how it’s going to take place.”
Those “subtle adjustments” still couldn’t stave off a wheezing 2-7 finish to an 18-13 record for the Razorbacks, whose seven-player core included converted Arkansas quarterback Brandon Mitchell.
Effort was maximum, Anderson said. But the conclusion readily apparent.
“They hit that wall,” Anderson said.