LSU keeps at-large hopes alive with win over Vandy
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Albeit faint, LSU still has a pulse when it comes to keeping NCAA Tournament at-large aspirations alive.
Trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half against Vanderbilt on Thursday night, the Tigers rallied for a 57-51 win, picking up only their second Southeastern Conference road win in nine tries this season. With a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rating teetering at 64th nationally according to NCAA.com, LSU (18-11, 9-8) could ill afford a loss to the Commodores (15-14, 7-10), a team down to seven scholarship players that started a manager-turned-player and had to rely on two walk-ons for key minutes on Senior Night.
"You are always trying to position yourself and teams are trying to play their best at this point in the season," said LSU coach Johnny Jones, whose team closes the regular season Saturday at home versus Georgia. "You want to be actually executing at your highest right now and making the plays that you need to down the stretch. I thought tonight we were able to do that and on a court like this. I’m hopeful that will allow us to have the type of confidence we need moving forward."
Junior forward Johnny O’Bryant notched a double-double of 25 points and 11 rebounds, both game highs. Senior guard Andre Stringer came off the bench to score 11 points, making all eight free throw attempts, including four in the final 35 seconds to preserve the win.
"Johnny is very effective," Jones said of his 6-foot-9, 256-pound big man. "A lot of times if you put him in situations where he is one-on-one, he can make plays. But a couple of plays weren’t at the rim. He knocked down some from around the free throw line, elbow jumpers, there late that really helped us."
Vanderbilt appeared to be on the way to blowing LSU out in the first half, leading by as many as 16 points as the Tigers were shooting only 26.7 percent from the field. Conversely, the Commodores couldn’t make a 32-24 halftime lead stand, shooting a frosty 20.7 percent and scoring only 19 points in the second half.
"I am beyond being surprised," Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said. "I don’t get surprised much. So, anything can happen in a game. We are obviously very disappointed for our seniors."
That would be forward Rod Odom and guard Kyle Fuller, who combined to shoot just 6 of 33 from the field against the Tigers. Coming off a 38-point blowout loss Saturday at Tennessee, Stallings wondered if the season might have finally taken its toll on his core players, who have had to play multiple minutes every game.
"I hope not because we’ve got more to play," Stallings said. "But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say perhaps. How can we know? How can we truthfully really know? I know that these guys will come out and play their butts off on Saturday.
"I think you can say some of those shots you see not going in were going in earlier. On the one hand, offensively you can say maybe so. But if you look down defensively, you see that we were outrebounded by two by that team. We hold them to 33 percent (shooting)."
There was a long stretch in the second half where neither team could get much done offensively. LSU had 14 possessions where it could either tie the score or take the lead before O’Bryant made two free throws to knot the game at 49-49 with 3:23 to play. LSU outscored the Commodores 8-2 from there to win its third game in four outings. The only loss during that stretch came in overtime at Kentucky a week ago Saturday.
"It was a great battle and two good defensive surges during that time," Jones said of the second-half offensive drought by both teams. " … Neither one of us could score during that period."
Vanderbilt shot to an early 15-4 lead when freshman forward Luke Kornet started an 11-0 run with a 3-pointer from the left wing. Odom took over from there, knocking down consecutive 3-pointers and a 10-foot pull-up jump shot to cap the spurt.
After LSU pulled to within seven points, sophomore walk-on guard Nathan Watkins canned a 3-pointer and took a nifty pass from junior forward James Siakam on a backdoor cut for a lay-in to push the Commodores ahead by 24-12. A field goal moments later by Siakam and two free throws by Odom gave Vanderbilt its biggest lead of the fame at 28-12 around five minutes before intermission. But LSU went on an 11-2 run to pull within six points at 30-24 and eventually trail at intermission by 32-24. Back-to-back buckets O’Bryant started the spurt. After Stallings was hit with a technical foul for protesting a call, Stringer made two free throws and then capped the run with a 3-pointer.
"It was big for us," Jones said of the flurry to close the first half, "but I was a little bit disappointed that we put ourselves in that type of position. … I knew the game was going to come down to just a few possessions as it was playing out in the second half."
LSU continued the momentum of the strong close of the first half into the second half, opening with a 7-2 spurt to pull within 34-31 before a 3-pointer by Fuller from the right wing ended the run.
As the Commodores could only make two of their first 14 shots of the second half, the Tigers weren’t much better. Finally, reserve forward Shelby Moats made a 3-pointer to push Vanderbilt’s lead to 40-35 with just over 11 minutes to play. From there, though, the Commodores were outscored 23-14 and struggled offensively.
"We couldn’t make open shots," Stallings said. "We couldn’t make layups. So, we tried hard. We fought hard. We guarded hard. Our guys really competed and followed our defensive game plan to a tee. Unfortunately, we weren’t good enough to finish it off, so we went cold in the second half and never really found it again."