No. 18 Kentucky 77, LSU 76: Hickey and Heartbreak

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

There's LSU road losses this year and then there's this game. Don't confuse them for one and the same, because the Tigers earned some respect.

This was nothing like the losses at Georgia, Texas A&M or Alabama. Be frustrated with those performances all you want but give a rousing ovation for how LSU competed against a game Kentucky squad.

wrote in the game preview that a moral victory in Rupp would mean nothing because of the Tigers previous struggles; only a win would do. I was only partly right.

The loss knocks LSU squarely off the bubble and into "Win The SEC Tournament" territory. There's no RPI boost for a moral victory.

But I'll be damned if you try to deny the LSU team that showed up on Saturday proper respect, because that may have been the best effort of the Johnny Jones era. Battling a UK team hungry for revenge after the Ice Dome disaster and playing without two of its top four guards, the Tigers never gave in to the Wildcats.

Not when Kentucky reeled off 13 straight points after LSU's opening 6-0 run.

Not when a 30-22 deficit and Johnny O'Bryant's two fouls made circumstances dire with less than five minutes in the first half.

Not even when they had the advantage in the final minute of regulation and couldn't close due to a mix of poor officiating, a missed free throw and Anthony Hickey's failed heroics.

This time, the LSU team that showed up away from the PMAC was one to be proud of. Yes, the defense still gave up points seemingly at will, though it took overtime for UK to reach 77. Foul issues still plagued LSU. The opposing team marched to the foul stripe early and often.

But the effort was everywhere. Down to its starting five and little else with Tim Quarterman absent for a family funeral, LSU seemed to play from the outset like a team that knew no one else was going to bail it out.

Even with the Wildcats penetrating the lane at will, UK still only shot 41 percent. Despite JOB's foul issues and a subpar game from Jordan Mickey, the rebound disparity was miniscule. A road environment teeming with Blue Bloods had little effect, as LSU turned it over only 13 times.

More than that, though, LSU had the intangibles. JOB played one of the nation's best frontlines to a draw despite the fouls and a horrible shooting outing. Shavon Coleman fought through a few screens and played stand-up defense on the final defensive sequence of regulation, the foul be damned. Andre Stringer played far bigger than his size, drilling some clutch buckets.

None of this even touches on Anthony Hickey, the true man of the hour for LSU. The Hopkinsville, Ky. native always has extra fire for UK, and he delivered the most glorious, gut-wrenching performance of his career in purple and gold. Hickey played every last second until fouling out in the final minute of overtime, spilling every ounce he had into a 20-point, eight-assist, five-rebound effort that was one of my favorite games of all time by an LSU Tiger. It seemed as if each time Kentucky was poised to take command of the contest, Hickey would make something - an assist, a long 3-pointer, a loose ball rebound - happen.

Anyone watching that game knows LSU outplayed Kentucky, and that's in large part a compliment to Hickey. On a floor teeming with future NBA talent, Hickey was the most impactful player working. It's been a tumultuous career for the diminutive junior point guard. Saturday's performance should make him one of the most beloved Tiger players of this generation.

All of this sounds like glowing praise, and for what, a team that lost? Yes, that's the bugaboo here. LSU couldn't close it out. We saw this at UMass and we saw this at Ole Miss and Alabama. This wasn't the same thing. There was execution down the stretch. There was significant talent on the other bench. The task was more daunting in every way, but LSU never backed down, not only in effort but the product on the floor. Kentucky had to rip it away from the Tigers.

If there's a silver lining to this loss, it's the necessary confidence LSU might be able to harness next month. If the Tigers are good enough to do that in Rupp Arena, they're good enough to beat 12 out of the 13 other SEC teams on a neutral floor, perhaps at the SEC Tournament. With LSU part of the seven-way 7-7 logjam for fourth in the SEC, and an uninspiring UGA group 3rd, that leaves UK and Florida.

It's apparent LSU matches up well with the Wildcats, meaning only the Gators should truly inspire any fear in Atlanta. Get a good draw, and who knows? Ole Miss made a run last year. LSU showed Saturday it's not only talented enough, but has some resolve. No moral victories, but this was a loss you can live with.

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