Friday was a very emotional day for Johnny Jones.
The former LSU player and assistant coach, who appeared in Final Fours in both capacities, was the leader on the sidelines for the first time at his alma mater Friday night against UC Santa Barbara.
The opponent didn't matter. Jones had highly anticipated this opportunity to coach his first game for the Tigers. The night ended up just fine for Jones whose team knocked off the Gauchos 77-63 at the PMAC.
"I want to say how excited we are and I am to have gotten this game behind us and under our belt," Jones said. "It's been since Oct. 13 that I've been looking forward to this day for a lot of reasons. I was looking forward to having the opportunity to coach a live game out there.
"I just really was filled with emotions today from my playing days. I remember my mom and dad driving in from DeRidder and being at my games as a freshman. Having the opportunity tonight of seeing my mom sitting there in the stands meant a whole lot."
The Tigers trailed for most of the first ten minutes of the game. Shane Hammink's 3-pointer put LSU ahead for good at 24-22 with 9:47 before halftime. Two baskets, one a 3-pointer, by Johnny O'Bryant gave the Tigers a 29-24 lead. Then, Jones observed the worst possible situation.
O'Bryant left the game with just under nine minutes to play in the first half with a leg injury. He would not return. In his 11 minutes, O'Bryant had accounted for 13 points and eight rebounds. His season-highs last year were 21 points and 11 rebounds.
"Johnny's play was nothing I saw in April when we worked out with him," Jones said. "I didn't see it all summer and I haven't seen it since October when we started practice. The way he played away from the basket and as explosive as he was, he was on a tear.
"Through our scrimmages and practices, we've utilized him mostly around the basket. But, I thought he knocked down a couple of shots early and felt extremely confident. He was really playing great basketball. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see him finish it out because of that little setback."
O'Bryant has a calf strain. He will rest Saturday and have the calf re-evaluated Sunday when the Tigers return to practice.
With O'Bryant on the bench, the Tigers extended their advantage to nine points by halftime at 41-32. Charles Carmouche had a couple of baskets, while Eddie Ludwig had a field goal and two free throws as LSU outscored UC Santa Barbara 12-8 after O'Bryant went out.
"We had to step up as a team after Johnny went out," said point guard Anthony Hickey, who did not start. "That was a big player who went down. We struggled a little bit after Johnny went down with our offensive and defensive rebounding. We just had to defend more on the perimeter."
The Gauchos struggled against the LSU defense after halftime. In the first six minutes of the second half, UCSB was 1-of-8 from the field and committed seven turnovers. The Tigers went on a 14-5 run to build an 18-point advantage at 55-37.
Carmouche made a pair of baskets, while Andre Stringer capped the outburst with a three-point play and a 3-pointer. The Gauchos reduced their deficit to ten points at 60-50, but LSU answered with ten consecutive points. Malik Morgan made two shots, including a 3-pointer, in that stretch.
"It started with our defense, especially in the second half," said Ludwig, who was forced to play center after O'Bryant left the game. "We made some stops in the second half. You saw us running up and down the floor, getting steals and knocking down shots. That is coach Jones' style of play."
Six LSU players combined for ten 3-pointers. Carmouche, Stringer and Hammink each sank a couple of treys. The Tigers were 10-of-26 from behind the arc. Amazingly, LSU missed 13 of its 20 free throw attempts. The biggest offender was Ludwig, who was just 3-of-9 from the stripe.
"This team is very capable of spreading the floor and knocking down 3s," Jones said. "The biggest thing is for the guys to be patient. As long as they are not forcing shots, that's good. Before you ask, we will work on our free throws Sunday."
Carmouche led the Tigers with 16 points in just 23 minutes. Carmouche made six of his ten field goal attempts. Morgan started ahead of Stringer at the other wing position and finished with ten points in his college debut. Morgan also had six rebounds and three steals in 23 minutes.
"Johnny set the tone early with his offensive and defensive rebounding," said Carmouche, a transfer from Memphis. "We fed off his energy and just played off of him. We caught on to what (Santa Barbara) was running in the second half and played better defense."
Stringer, who was on the court for just 13 minutes, had nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. Hammink logged 20 minutes in his LSU debut and contributed ten points. He was 4-of-8 from the field, including 2-of-3 on 3-pointers.
One of the most impressive statistic lines belonged to Hickey. In 28 minutes, Hickey accounted for six points, six assists and seven steals - the most by a LSU player since Clarence Ceasar in 1994. More importantly, Hickey had no turnovers.
However, Hickey's night got off to an embarrassing start. When called to enter the game early in the first half, Hickey took off his warmup jacket only to realize he had forgotten to put on his jersey.
"I have never done that before," Hickey said. "Everybody was looking at me. Luckily, we had a timeout, so I had time to go back to the locker room and get my jersey."
Jones was not upset with what happened with Hickey, who had been suspended for the exhibition game last Monday against Arkansas-Monticello for failing to handle some classroom responsibilities.
"I had seen that happen before," Jones said. "(Former LSU player) Ronnie Henderson forgot his jersey at Vanderbilt. Players warm up and leave their jersey in the locker room so it doesn't get sweaty. I think he thought he was in a little bit of trouble. Being a player, I could understand how that happened."
Jones expressed satisfaction with the manner Hickey has handled the past few days since he was disciplined.
"Anthony impressed me with his attitude during that time he knew was not playing in the (exhibition) game. He knew he was not starting (Friday), but he was ready when he went in the game. He didn't feel he had anything to prove. He was tuned in to the basketball game."
Freshman Corban Collins, who started ahead of Hickey, played 11 minutes. He had no points, no assists and one turnover. Ludwig had five points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes.
With O'Bryant missing most of the game, Shavon Coleman played in the post and accounted for six points and four rebounds in 28 minutes. Jalen Courtney, who also played inside, had two points and five rebounds in 12 minutes.
"It was a great effort by our players," Jones said. "The guys did an excellent job of keeping (UC Santa Barbara) off balance. Our guards were really good in terms of putting a lot of pressure on the ball and not allowing easy passes. That's what allowed us to get so many turnovers."
The Gauchos committed 23 turnovers which resulted in 21 LSU points. The Tigers were guilty of just 13 turnovers. However, LSU was outrebounded 41-40 and gave up 15 offensive boards.
The Tigers will return to action Tuesday night when McNeese State visits the PMAC.