NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Andre Stringer thumped the ball at the top of the arc and sized up Georgia guard Charles Mann as the shot clock ticked down.
At seven seconds, the LSU guard crossed his dribble over, rose from the floor of Bridgestone Arena and lofted a 3-pointer toward the rim to shove the Tigers away from disaster in the SEC tournament.
“I tried to create some room, and I let it fly,” Stringer said. “I felt it was going in when it left my hand.”
Rippling twine, Stringer’s 3-pointer with 33.6 seconds left pushed ninth-seeded LSU’s lead to five Thursday afternoon. It halted a five-minute scoring drought, helping the Tigers hang on for a 68-63 victory to earn a Friday meeting with top seed Florida after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had led the No. 8 seed Bulldogs’ comeback from a 23-point, first-half deficit.
“I saw him looking, just trying to get some room and start getting a little rhythm bounce,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “When they gave it to him, he was able to raise up.”
Caldwell-Pope, who scored a career-high 32 points on 9-of-20 shooting, hoisted a final bid to pull the Bulldogs (15-17) even with 10.2 seconds left. With his team trailing 66-63, the sophomore came off a double screen on the left wing and launched a deep 3-pointer that clanged off the rim before Stringer corralled the miss.
“I didn’t shoot it straight up and down,” said Caldwell-Pope, who had 25 points after halftime. “It was well contested, and I just didn’t ... I guess didn’t create any space just to get an open shot.”
That Caldwell-Pope, the SEC Player of the Year, was presented with the opportunity was a profound blessing after LSU (19-11) built a 39-16 lead with a little over two minutes left until halftime. Trudging into the locker room down 39-19, Georgia coach Mark Fox admitted the lethargic first half left him and his staff bewildered.
“We didn’t talk about basketball at all at the half,” he said. “We talked about trying to mature as competitors and relax and play on a different stage and play a little harder.”
Or, loosely translated, feed Caldwell-Pope and let him operate.
Four minutes into the second half, he sank a 3-pointer off the left wing, followed with a pair of free throws and finally buried another 3 with 12:33 left when he scooped up a loose ball after Johnny O’Bryant swatted Donte Williams’ hook shot on the left block.
“We wanted to make sure we stayed down on him,” Jones said. “The guys were doing a great job. They didn’t do the type of job probably we needed getting there and containing the basketball.”
In a little over three minutes, the Bulldogs pared LSU’s lead to 49-36 and attacked the rim so aggressively that they were in the one-and-one just 5:30 after halftime.
LSU’s antidote to Caldwell-Pope’s assertiveness was unlikely. Forward Shavon Coleman splashed through a 3-pointer and was knocked to the floor by Williams, hitting a free throw with 12:11 left to extend the lead to 14.
And it was Coleman who was the lone well of points for the Tigers early in the second half, his four-point play capping a span when he scored 11 of LSU’s first 14 points in the second half.
“We know that he’s very capable out there,” Jones said. “We allow him to stretch out there a little bit in games and take one or two to try to loosen the defense.”
Not bad, too, considering it was Coleman’s first start in over a month.
“It’s not about scoring,” he said. “There are different things I can do for my team to help my team win, like rebounding and defense. Tonight, I just had the hot hand.”
LSU, which shot 43.4 percent for the game, faced few struggles piling up points in the first half. A pair of Brandon Morris free throws with 7:58 to go until halftime dented LSU’s lead to 25-15, but those would be Georgia’s last points for the next five minutes.
A layup from guard Charles Carmouche spurred a 14-1 run to a 23-point lead, capped by a bucket on the right block with 2:06 left by O’Bryant, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds. It wasn’t until the 1-minute mark when Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer in transition that Georgia ended a 9:45 span without a field goal.
How futile was Georgia’s first half offensively? It committed two more turnovers than it had field goals, struggling to a 7-of-22 performance before halftime.
If Fox talked about the big picture in the locker room, he also pressed another point. Pumping the offense through Caldwell-Pope and Mann produced the desired effect, with the pair combining to make 20 of 26 free-throw attempts.
Knocking down two of three free throws, a Caldwell-Pope trip to the free-throw line spurred a 7-2 spurt from Georgia, which pared the deficit to 60-51 with 6:19 left on a 3-pointer from Mann. By then, LSU, which 36.8 percent in the second half, was in the throes of what turned out to be an 8:03 stretch without a basket — a span when they missed seven shots and committed three turnovers — after Georgia switched to a sagging zone.
“We were almost like trying to hold on instead of just making plays which our guys are capable of doing,” Jones said.
While LSU flailed, Georgia reeled off an 8-0 run to pull within 63-61 on two free throws from Mann with 1:06 remaining. Cue up Stringer’s jumper — and one last contribution from Coleman, who got a hand in Caldwell-Pope’s face to contest his potential game-tying 3-pointer after switching on a screen.
“He did an excellent job of switching it, getting there, and didn’t allow him to get his shoulders turned for an easy look at the basket,” Jones said. “It was a great play defensively by him.”
One that staved off heartbreak, too.