The LSU basketball team went into the cauldron that’s known as Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday night looking to gain momentum for the postseason.
On the heels of Saturday night’s 20-point blasting of Missouri, Will Wade’s team was 8.6 seconds away from doing just that in one of the toughest places to play in the Southeastern Conference — and the nation.
All LSU got for one of its stronger efforts of the season was another loss, this one a 77-76 setback to Arkansas that kept the Tigers from climbing into a fifth-place tie in the SEC race with one regular-season game left.
As a result, LSU, which led No. 14 Arkansas for more than 16 minutes of the second half before falling, will need to get that momentum from its finale Saturday against No. 25 Alabama in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU, which is tied for eighth, could still earn the fifth seed for next week’s SEC tournament — with a win and some help.
First, it would have to beat Alabama and then get wins from Kentucky (vs. Florida), Auburn (vs. South Carolina) and Texas A&M (vs. Mississippi State).
Sixth place is also a possibility, but seeding scenarios weren’t on Wade’s mind late Wednesday night.
Another collapse against Arkansas doomed his team, this time allowing the red-hot Razorbacks to escape after trailing by seven points with 6:31 to play.
In the first matchup in the PMAC on Jan. 15, the Tigers had an eight-point lead evaporate in the final nine minutes of an eventual 65-58 loss.
Defensive mistakes were again an issue and late fouls, which helped Arkansas score seven of its final 14 points from the free-throw line, didn’t help in what turned out to be a heartbreaking loss.
“Obviously, extremely, extremely disappointed,” Wade said. “I’m proud of our guys. We played well, we played extremely hard, we limited our turnovers, we made our free throws.
“We did a really nice job on the offensive glass and the glass in particular, but we just weren’t solid enough defensively down the stretch.”
After taking a 63-56 lead on Tari Eason’s old-fashioned three-point play with 6:31 to go, LSU was outscored 21-13 the rest of the way.
That means the Razorbacks outscored the Tigers by a combined 38-15 in the final nine minutes of their first game and last 6½ minutes of the rematch.
While it’s not embarrassing since Arkansas is just a game behind Auburn in the chase for the regular-season title, you can be sure it’s concerning for Wade.
“I think we made some progress toward how we need to play,” he said. “We just weren’t able to finish it off, which is extremely disappointing. I thought we deserved a little bit better tonight.”
They did, unlike that meltdown at home against Arkansas.
The Razorbacks, who got off to a 1-3 SEC start, looked like a beaten team that afternoon when the Tigers let them get back into it.
When the two teams met again Wednesday night, Arkansas was a roll with 14 wins in its past 15 games and was a robust 16-1 at home.
So, when LSU couldn’t close it out, the result was predictable.
“We can’t make the mistakes we made in the six-minute game,” Wade said. “We got to be solid, we got to rebound the ball and we just can’t make the mistakes we made down the stretch if we’re going to win in tournament basketball in March.”
Yet, there was hope in Wade’s eyes.
“I think we’re playing closer to our potential. … I think we’re playing closer to how we played at the beginning of the year,” he said.
“That’s why it was so disappointing that we didn’t get the result tonight to kind of spring us forward.”