At first, it looked like the Tigers were going to drop another conference game. Texas A&M (coming into the game with a 12-5 record, including victories over Kentucky & Arkansas) raced out to a 9-0 lead in the first two and a half minutes of the game. Soon, the Aggies were up 19-5.
But while LSU's offense struggled in the first half (and really, the half-court offense had problems the entire game), the team was able to erase the lead through pressure defense and the ensuing points created off turnovers. Then, in the final three minutes of the first half, the Tigers went on a 10-0 run to cut the previously insurmountable lead down to one point. After a disastrous start, being down 28-27 didn't look too bad.
The second half was heavily contested, and LSU's scrappy defense created a chaotic atmosphere that led to sloppy play for A&M. The Tigers created 24 turnovers tonight, including 19 steals (8 of which came from Anthony Hickey, one of the national leaders), resulting in multiple transition baskets.
In particular, Aggies freshman point guard J'Mychal Reese, once called the best 8th grader in the country by ESPN The Magazine (and the centerpiece of a middle school AAU team featuring Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon and San Diego State forward Winston Shepard) was overwhelmed by the pressure, coughing the ball up six times. On yet another poor shooting night for LSU, where the Tigers struggled mightily from the three-point line and couldn't buy a free throw until Andre Stringer hit a clutch pair in the closing seconds, these transition points paved the way for the Tigers' most impressive victory since late November.
It's worth noting that this was the most streamlined Tigers' line-up all season, with only eight players seeing the court. And only six Tigers saw meaningful gametime (Stringer, Johnny O'Bryant, Hickey, Shavon Coleman, Malik Morgan, and Charles Carmouche, who was back after missing the Saturday night game in Athens).
O'Bryant was often the only big man in the LSU line-up, and he contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds, on another solid shooting night, and Coleman, a versatile swingman, led the team with 17 points.
It will be very interesting to see if the team can sustain playing an exhausting and aggressive style of defense with such a compact roster over the next few weeks, or if we will see a deeper rotation.
One thing is for certain. When the Tigers go on the road to face off against Kentucky on Saturday afternoon (3:00 central), they will be facing one of the tallest frontlines in the nation, featuring 6'10" Nerlens Noel, 6'10" Kyle Wiltjer, 6'8" Alex Poythress, and 7'0" Willie Cauley-Stein. The Wildcats, ranked in the pre-season top 5, have been one of the biggest disappointments in the country so far, and their biggest question marks are in the backcourt, where former NC State point guard Ryan Harrow has failed to fill the shoes of one-and-done superstars like John Wall and Brandon Knight.
Can Hickey, Stringer, and company use their athleticism and tenacity to make up for a significant height disadvantage? Much like Bart Scott, I can't wait.