BATON ROUGE, La. — As fate would have it, LSU chose this weekend to honor its 1978 men’s basketball team, which memorably outlasted then-No. 1 University of Kentucky in a thrilling overtime upset despite all five Tigers starters fouling out.
LSU coach Johnny Jones thought such an example of perseverance would make an appropriate subject for a pregame speech before his team played host to the University of Alabama on Saturday. He sure looks clairvoyant now.
After LSU climbed out of a 10-point hole late in regulation, Johnny O’Bryant capped a 24-point, 10-rebound performance by hitting two free throws in the final seconds of the third overtime, and LSU held on for a 97-94 victory that snapped the Crimson Tide’s four-game winning streak.
“I had an opportunity to speak to the ’78 team prior to the game and told them that my message to our players was about that (Kentucky) game, how the guys fought through a lot of things, how resilient they were,” Jones said. “This game somewhat played out like that. It wasn’t five guys fouling out, but going three overtimes after being down by 10 with less than three minutes or so to play … I thought it somewhat rivaled that.”
O’Bryant’s strong inside basket gave the Tigers the lead for good at 91-90 with 2 minutes, 18 seconds to go in the last extra session, and Anthony Hickey added a clutch 3 from the right corner to make it 94-90 with 1:19 left. That allowed LSU (16-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) to finally capitalize on its 10-point comeback inside the final three minutes of regulation and hand Alabama (18-9, 10-4) only the third loss in its last 13 games.
For the Crimson Tide, the loss spoiled Trevor Releford’s career-best 36-point performance on 14-of-18 shooting, including 4 of 4 from 3-point range. The junior also had three steals, making him the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader in that department with 178, two more than the previous mark Senario Hillman set in four seasons.
“It would have probably been better if we would have won,” Releford said of his accomplishments. “It is frustrating right now, but you can’t dwell on it too much. You still have a lot to play for. We just have to move on to the next game.”
Charles Carmouche had 20 points and 11 rebounds for LSU, while Shavon Coleman had 17 points. Hickey, who sat out long stretches of the game, finished strong with 13 points, his only made 3-pointer on four attempts coming at the perfect time.
Rodney Cooper scored 18 for Alabama, including a late 3 that tied it at 88 in the final seconds of the second overtime. However, Alabama had to play all three overtimes without starting center Moussa Gueye and starting guard Levi Randolph, who both fouled out late in regulation.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant said losing those two players hurt, but pinpointed LSU’s 47-38 advantage in rebounding and 25-16 advantage in scoring on foul shots as pivotal factors in the outcome.
“We have to rebound the ball and do what got us the lead,” Grant said. “LSU had a free-throw block out when we were up 10 that we need to come up with. From that point on, it seemed like every missed shot, they’d get it back. I’ve got to look back at the film. My expectation is that we get the balls that they came up with. It’s a physical game, and when you are allowed to be physical, then you have to give it back.”
Alabama led 69-59 on Randolph’s putback with 3:30 left that hushed the crowd at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Then Carmouche hit a pair of free throws, Coleman added two more, and O’Bryant scored inside as he was fouled, pulling LSU to 69-65 with 2:00 left. O’Bryant missed his foul shot, but LSU rebounded and Carmouche hit a layup to make it a two-point game and send the crowd into a frenzy.
“It’s great to have a group of guys like this who trust and believe in each other, play extremely hard — and winning is important to them,” Jones said. “Any time that you’re challenged and can win close games, I think it’s character building for you as well. And you put yourself in the position that you never feel like you’re out of games.”
Releford, meanwhile, suddenly went quiet after spending most of the game scoring on everything from transition 3s to a shot-clock-beating floater as he fell over the baseline. He took only one shot, a missed floater, during the Tide’s collapse at the end of regulation, and attempted only four shots in three overtimes, hitting two.
The difference stemmed in part from a defensive adjustment in which Carmouche took over as Releford’s primary defender, with help from double-teams.
“I guess Coach really saw it in my eyes — I didn’t say anything — I just wanted to guard him and lock him down,” Carmouche said. “He’s a great player and he’s a tough guy to guard, but we needed those stops and I just kept fighting and tried to be everywhere that he was and not let him see another pass. I just pretty much denied him the whole way.”
O’Bryant hit two free throws to tie it up with 54 seconds left, but missed a jumper that could have won it in regulation.
Neither team led by more than two points during the first overtime, and Releford did not shoot until missing a driving floater for the win in the final seconds. Cooper tipped it in as the buzzer sounded, and officials initially counted it, setting off a wild celebration on the court among Alabama players and protests from LSU. The basket was then discounted on video review, forcing a second extra session.
The Tigers scored the first five points of the second overtime on O’Bryant’s layup and Andre Stringer’s 3, but Releford later tied it on a driving layup as he was fouled.
LSU led 88-85 late in the second OT after O’Bryant followed his offensive rebound with a pair of free throws, but Cooper’s 3 forced yet another extra session.