Another night in the grindhouse for LSU.
The Tigers don’t know any other way to play, really. Their 79-61 victory at Florida a few games back was some kind of statistical anomaly.
Otherwise, LSU’s trek through the Southeastern Conference has been a slog, the rest of its games decided by seven points or less and/or in overtime. Wednesday night’s game against South Carolina was no different.
The Gamecocks came to play. Rough. South Carolina is short on talent and artistry but long on big bodies who like to bang like the stock cars at Darlington. Instead of a rim, the Gamecocks should shoot at an MMA octagon. If Steve Spurrier’s defense hit this well, his Gamecocks might have won the SEC East.
The Tigers meanwhile prefer to sprint and swat, either flying to the basket or blocking shots with Jordan Mickey, Jarrell Martin and, in one pivotal moment Wednesday, Keith Hornsby. More on that later.
Like a team of burly teamsters, the Gamecocks imposed their grisly style of play on LSU. With 3:55 left, it looked like Frank Martin’s Rock ’Em Sock ’Em robots would win, up 56-52 with the ball.
But the Tigers got a stop and Josh Gray, previously 0-for-4 on the night, canned a big 3-pointer with 2:44 left to make it a one-point game. It was one of those “No, no, no, yes!” moments for the Tigers. Somewhere, Les Miles was slapping his hands together saying, “That’s just what we needed.”
Somehow it was. After South Carolina regained the lead 58-57 with 1:40 left, LSU got it back for good on a slam by Martin off a feed from Tim Quarterman. LSU got whistled for an inbounds violation with 26.4 seconds left and it looked like the Gamecocks could hold for the win, but Marcus Stroman went quickly for the goal off the inbounds pass and got blocked from behind by Hornsby with 23 seconds to go.
Five clutch free throws followed — one by Gray, two by Mickey and two by Quarterman. LSU’s ground game churned out the last touchdown, er, seven points of the night, and the Tigers won 64-58.
Asked if his block on Stroman was the biggest of his career, Hornsby, who actually is third on the team with 12 blocks, responded: “Completely. I haven’t had many, more this year than I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, more brave.”
You can argue the Tigers keep stealing these close games, like their overtime win at Vanderbilt on Saturday or their comeback from the grave to beat Georgia at home in double OT. But while these games may be hard on coach Johnny Jones’ ticker, they are steeling the Tigers’ resolve.
Going 5 of 6 at the line in the final 21.5 seconds, those were all one-and-one situations. And the one Gray missed, Mickey got the rebound, then went to the line and made his.
Paul Dietzel once said you can learn more character on the 2-yard line than anywhere else in life.
That was a bit overstating things perhaps, but the free-throw line with the outcome of the game resting on your shoulders is right up there, too.
The Tigers passed the character test, and without sparkplug guard Jalyn Patterson and backup center Elbert Robinson to boot.
“We’re happy to be 5-2,” Hornsby said. “The losses are disappointing, but we’re improving each game. Games like this are valuable experience. We weren’t good at closing out games like this, but now we’re getting better at it.”
Now 16-4 overall, the Tigers have three more games before Kentucky comes calling on Feb. 10, at Mississippi State and home against Auburn and Alabama. Frankly, LSU should win them all.
But expect some grinders.
That’s what the Tigers do.