On Saturday afternoon, LSU almost pulled off the first major upset of the Johnny Jones era.
Coming off a strong performance against Texas A&M on Wednesday, LSU was a heavy underdog in Rupp Arena. Even though Kentucky has failed to reach the lofty expectations of their top 5 pre-season ranking, they are nonetheless a formidable opponent, particularly in their iconic home venue. The Wildcats entered the game with a 12-6 record and had lost close games to national powers Louisville and Duke earlier in the year.
Additionally, Kentucky had a noticeable height advantage over an undersized LSU team, even though that was lessened by the absence of freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, who is recuperating from a knee operation from a couple of weeks ago.
Once again, the Tigers started off cold from the field and allowed the Wildcats to pull out to a quick lead. With 7 minutes to go in the first half, Kentucky led 31-17, and LSU risked getting blown out of the gym.
However, LSU made an extended comeback, slowly chipping away at the Wildcats' lead. Anthony Hickey, the 2011 Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky, showed the home team that they missed out on a dynamic playmaker on both ends of the court. Hickey buried 4 of his 7 attempts from the 3-point line and scored 15 points, while adding 3 steals. Backcourt mate Andre Stringer was also hot from downtown, converting 3 of 4 attempts.
The Tigers began to make their move a couple of minutes into the second half. For the next 10 minutes, Kentucky maintained a modest lead, usually between 7 and 12 points. But it got interesting later in the half.
With just under 6 minutes to go, freshmen Malik Morgan and Shane Hammink contributed on a pair of baskets, and then Hickey buried a 3 on a pass from Hammink to cut the lead down to 5 (66-61). Eventually, the Tigers cut the lead even further. With just over half a minute remaining, LSU was down 3 but had possession of the ball.
Unfortunately, on the ensuing possession, Shavon Coleman missed a 3-point shot badly, and Johnny O'Bryant III pulled down a strong rebound. However, instead of passing the ball to an open Hickey for a follow up 3-pointer with 10 seconds to go, he opted for a lay-up. It was O'Bryant's 21st point of the day, although it came on a very inefficient 22 shots (although it should be noted to his credit that JOB III played essentially the entire game).
From that point forward, LSU had to resort to tactical fouls to have any hope of winning the game. After Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer sank both shots to make the score 73-70, Hickey was fouled by Archie Goodwin, but failed to convert the front end of his one-and-one, ending the Tigers' hope of a shocking upset.
Kentucky was led by freshmen Alex Poythress (20 points on only 9 shots, 12 rebounds) and Nerlens Noel (10 points, 8 rebounds, 6 blocks), and the team shot the ball at a very impressive 52% rate for the game.
Despite the loss, the Tigers should be pleased by their resilience. The team has bounced back from two bad losses last week with some of their best basketball of the season. The schedule doesn't get any easier though as LSU will face nationally ranked Missouri on Wednesday night at 7:00 in the PMAC. LSU is 10-7 on the season and 1-5 in the SEC.