NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Louisiana State University coach Johnny Jones decided to start junior forward Shavon Coleman, a rare move for someone who’s usually his first player off the bench.
The move paid off Thursday as Coleman scored 24 points, and the Tigers held off Georgia 68-63 Thursday to give the first-year coach a win in his Southeastern Conference tournament debut. It was just Coleman’s seventh start this season, and he hit a career-best four of his five 3-pointers.
“We’re very fortunate he was able to get into a rhythm,” Jones said. “He knocked a couple down and became very confident out there and made big plays.”
Coleman was just shy of his career-high of 25, which he had in the second game of the season. He hadn’t scored in double figures the past four games.
“I just had the hot hand, and the team kept coming to me,” Coleman said.
LSU, which started league play by losing its first four games, now has won three of four.
The Tigers (19-11) will play No. 13 Florida in the quarterfinals today. The Gators beat LSU 74-52 on Jan. 12 in the Tigers’ second game in league play.
Georgia (15-17) has lost two in a row and left the tournament with a loss in its opening game for the first time since 2009. On the fifth anniversary of the tornado that hit Atlanta during the 2008 tournament, which the Bulldogs won, coach Mark Fox expected much more after a few good practices following their loss at Alabama last weekend on a half-court buzzer beater.
“I obviously didn’t have us where I thought I did,” Fox said.
The Bulldogs trailed by as much as 23 before whittling away LSU’s lead. They used a 12-3 run to pull within 66-63 with 28.5 seconds left.
Andre Stringer, who hit a 3 with 36 seconds left, also made two free throws to finish off the win after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit off the left rim from 25 feet away.
“We were fortunate our guys were able to hang on,” Jones said.
Caldwell-Pope, the SEC coaches’ pick for player of the year, had 25 of his career-high 32 points in the second half trying to bring Georgia back. He also had 13 rebounds. The sophomore guard had a couple of options before attempting his 15th 3.
“He’s earned the right to take whatever shot he wants, he’s had such a great year ...,” Fox said. “We still ended up with Kentavious having the ball in his hands. He had an opportunity to shoot the 3 or drive it and get back to the foul line, and he just missed it. He just missed a shot. He’s made a lot of them for us. He just missed that one.”
Stringer finished with 16 points for LSU. Johnny O’Bryant III added 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Charles Mann had 15 points for Georgia.
Georgia managed to outrebound LSU 48-34, but the Tigers outshot the Bulldogs 43.4 percent (23 of 53) to 28.6 percent (16 of 56). The Bulldogs repeatedly missed close looks in the paint as Nemanja Djurisic and John Florveus struggled and combined to go 2 of 14 from the floor. Donte’ Williams fouled out with only two points.
LSU led 39-19 at halftime before a 33-13 Georgia edge on the boards in the second half, along with going 19 of 24 at the line, helped the Bulldogs get back into the game.
“We came out in warm-ups and shootaround, and we looked good,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We just didn’t carry it over into the game.”
He did his best to get them going in the second half. His fifth 3 got the Bulldogs within 10 for the first time at 54-44, and Mann’s 3 with 6:20 left got them within 60-51 — the first time Georgia had been within single digits since 18-9. O’Bryant, who had been 1 of 7 at the line, hit five of his next six free throws to push the lead back to 63-51.
Mann hit two more free throws with 1:06 left to pull Georgia within 63-61, only to see Stringer hit his fourth 3 over Kenny Gaines with 36 seconds left. That was LSU’s first field goal since 8:37, and it proved enough as the Tigers held on to win.
“The shot clock was going down,” Stringer said. “I believe when I looked up it was 7. I initially wanted to drive to the basket. I tried to create some room, and I let it fly. I felt it was going in when it left my hand.”
The Tigers just had more energy from the start and took care of the ball with a season-low five turnovers.
The Bulldogs led only once, at 2-0, as LSU jumped on them from the start, hitting six of its first eight shots. The Tigers took the lead for good on a jumper by Coleman, and he quickly pushed the lead to 12-4 with back-to-back 3-pointers.
Anthony Hickey added another 3, and Stringer’s 3 gave LSU its first double-digit lead at 18-7, which it pushed to as much as 23 late in the half.