BATON ROUGE, La. -- Playing close games has been a constant for LSU ever since the Southeastern Conference season began. Winning those close ones -- that has been elusive for the most part.
The issue didn't seem to faze the Tigers on Wednesday, though, and in fact, their experience in nail-biters might have come in handy during a 73-70 upset of 17th-ranked Missouri at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU's Andre Stringer
and Johnny O'Bryant each hit two free throws in the final 38.5 seconds, and that was barely enough to hold off Mizzou, which trailed by 16 points early in the second half before heating up.
"It was a tight game and they were a great team," said Stringer, who knocked down four 3-pointers and scored 18 points. "We've been in a lot of tight games and we were finally able to put things together and pull one out."
Four days earlier, LSU (11-7, 2-5 SEC) nearly pulled off a stunning comeback victory at Kentucky, getting to within a point in the closing seconds before falling, 75-70. That was LSU's fourth single-digit SEC loss of the season.
A common thread in all of those losses was that LSU fell into an early hole that usually got to double digits well before halftime.
Not this time.
LSU never trailed against Missouri, roaring to an uncharacteristic quick start in the first half and led by as many as 15 points in the first half before going to halftime in front, 39-26.
"It's a much better feeling to play on that side of it," LSU coach Johnny Jones said.
That early cushion proved to be just enough to withstand a final 20 minutes in which Missouri (15-5, 4-3) shot 45.7 percent (16-for-35) and forced several LSU turnovers to climb back into the game.
LSU began the second half with another hot stretch and pushed the lead to a game-high 46-30 with just 2:34 gone in the second half. Missouri came alive following a timeout, though, and exploded for 12 unanswered points, including eight straight from Phil Pressey
at one point to climb back within 46-42 with 13:47 to go.
Hickey accepted the challenge from his point guard counterpart and answered with seven points in a row to help LSU re-establish the momentum on his way to 20 points.
Several minutes later when Missouri clawed back within 61-58, Hickey fed Stringer on a fastbreak and Stringer cranked in a 3-pointer from the left wing, got fouled and swished the free throw for a four-point play that supplied some breathing room at 65-58.
"I think it was a great confidence-builder for our team," Stringer said. "Hickey drove down, and their player was taking the lane away. I just stepped behind the 3-point line, and I saw Pressey come behind me, so I just followed through and hit my follow-through. Luckily, he fouled me. It went in, and that got the crowd into it."
Missouri didn't go quietly, though.
Jabari Brown knocked down a 3, Pressey twice drove for layups and Mizzou pulled within two points three separate times in the closing 32.6 seconds.
But Missouri never got the ball with a chance to take the lead on a night when it played uphill the entire way.
"We rallied together and made big defensive plays," senior forward Laurence Bowers said. "They went back on a run and we could never respond. We have to get a lot better at responding to adversity."
O'Bryant, who logged a fourth consecutive double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, provided a final backbreaker when he streaked down court against Missouri's full-court press, hauled in a pass from Charles Carmouche
and drove for a layup to extend the lead back to four points.
LSU surged to its best half of the SEC season to take a commanding 39-36 lead into halftime.
The Tigers shot 56 percent from the floor (14 of 25), paced by Stringer's 3 of 4 shooting from 3-point range. He also was fouled on a 3-pointer and knocked down all three shots for 12 points in the first half.
Missouri struggled to get into an offensive groove, in large part because it shot 26.9 percent (7 of 26).
With the game tied 6-6, LSU surged to 11 unanswered points, triggered by Stringer's three free throws and then back-to-back transition slam dunks by Charles Carmouche and O'Bryant.
During the LSU blitz, Missouri went into an offensive funk with three consecutive turnovers and then four straight missed shots -- with LSU grabbing the defensive rebound on each one and preventing Mizzou from feeding off of second-chance points, a season-long staple.
Negus Webster-Chan's 3-pointer at the 6:56 juncture brought Missouri within single digits, 27-18, for the first time in several minutes. But LSU responded by roaring back out to its biggest lead of the game with an 8-1 blast, eventually leading 35-19 when O'Bryant stepped back for a face-up baseline jumper.
Pressey kept Missouri from fading completely away with nine first-half points.
NOTES: Bowers returned from a five-game absence caused by a knee injury and was in the starting lineup. He finished with 10 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes. ... The game was just the second all-time meeting between the teams. The first came in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game in Houston in 1980, a 68-63 LSU victory. ... Stringer's three first-half 3-pointers gave him back-to-back games with that many, the third time he's reached that figure in seven SEC games. He finished 4-for-5 from long range and is LSU's top outside threat at 43 percent (40-for-93).
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