AMHERST, Mass. -- College basketball bubble talk in mid-November? That's what we had Tuesday morning as the University of Massachusetts hosted LSU bright and early as part of ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon.
In Joe Lunardi's preseason Bracketology projection, LSU was among the last four in and the Minutemen among the first four out. So both teams were looking at a win that might be an important line on their NCAA tournament resume come March.
UMass came away with the victory, leading the entire second half and hanging on 92-90. The Minutemen improved to 2-0 with their second impressive nonconference win, while LSU, considered a contender in the SEC, dropped its season opener.
The game turned early in the second half when LSU big man Johnny O’Bryant picked up his fourth foul with 13:32 to play. After scoring 14 first-half points, it was looking as if O’Bryant was ready to take control, quickly adding five points and three rebounds after intermission.
With O’Bryant off to the bench, UMass big man Cady Lalanne immediately found room for two uncontested dunks for a 69-59 lead.
LSU hung tough behind senior guard Andre Stringer and junior guard Anthony Hickey, but Lalanne again asserted himself with a pair of offensive rebounds and putbacks that build the UMass lead back up to 85-78, getting O’Bryant back on the floor with 5:26 left.
"Johnny O’Bryant is a great player. He did a great job out there," UMass guard Chaz Williams said. "Him not being on the floor helped us a lot. He takes up a lot of space and creates a lot of offense for their team. It took a lot of pressure off our big guys when he was out."
After re-entering the game, O’Bryant wasn’t the offensive force he had been before his forced absence and LSU got no closer than the final margin on a Hickey 3-pointer.
"That was fun," coach Derek Kellogg said. "We showed a little more maturity than we have in years past when teams make a run at us. We kept at it and kept fighting."
EARLY WAKE-UP CALL: Despite the 11 a.m. start time, UMass and LSU were flying out of the blocks -- literally. On each team’s first possession, an above-the-rim attempt was emphatically blocked away. The going continued to be rough underneath, with LSU sporting a sizable front line, and baskets were hard to come by, things getting particularly sloppy after the first media timeout. Midway through the first half, LSU was 4-for-19 from the field, UMass was 3-for-14.
That trend changed quickly with a torrid stretch before intermission. The Minutemen hit 10 of 14 and the Tigers 12 of 18, with UMass leading 49-45 at the break. UMass benefited from 27 trips to the foul line (19 makes) -- the refs weren’t sluggish with the early start, although the Minutemen pressed the issue by going to the basket often.
LATE WAKE-UP CALL: Lalanne, who had a career game with 27 points and 12 rebounds in Sunday's win over BC, played only four minutes in the first half, drawing his second personal foul with 12:56 to go.
But he unleashed his pent-up energy at the start of the second half with three strong moves to the hoop that gave UMass a 60-47 lead and led LSU coach Johnny Jones to call a quick timeout less than three minutes after the break. Lalanne finished with 16 points, hitting eight of nine shots in the second half.
"That's Cady Lalanne being Cady Lalanne," Williams said. "We've practiced with him something like 325 days and everyday that's just Cady being Cady. As teammates we tell him to go out and dominate every game and make the world realize you're potentially one of the best big men in the country."
FALSE START: LSU's Jarell Martin, perhaps the crown jewel of a consensus top-10 recruiting class for the Tigers, played just one minute in his collegiate debut before leaving with an ankle injury. Fellow freshman Jordan Mickey impressed with 16 point, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks, while classmate Tim Quarterman had five points over 18 minutes.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: Evidence that UMass has rekindled interest in the local fan base is the presence of Sign Man at the Mullins Center. A throwback to the program’s Calipari-era glory days, Sign Man walks around the floor hoisting corny messages of support for the home team. His presence had been somewhat spotty through the lean years, but he made the rounds Tuesday, with his collection including a sign for newcomer Derrick Gordon, dubbed “Flash Gordon” complete with blinking red eyes.
A crowd of 5,184 turned out for the weekday morning start.
"What can I say about our fans," Williams said. "They came all the way to Boston [for Sunday's game at TD Garden]; I thought we were home in Boston. They're very supportive, very consistent. They're always loud, cheering us on. That vibe that we have back and forth is just letting them know that they're doing it for us and we truly feel it."