Especially in a sport like college basketball, where building a resume is almost inextricable from a team's goals, it can be easy to lose sight of the singular impact one game can have.
That should not be the case here. Beating Kentucky is the reward in itself, much like besting Alabama in football has become. The Wildcats are the perennial monster atop the SEC, a Big Blue Nation similar in fervor and reach to the roll of the Tide. Regardless of LSU's postseason hopes or progression as a team, no one can take this one away from Johnny Jones and the Tigers.
A signature win is on the books in Jones' second season. Even Daddy Dale Brown came to the postgame press conference, because he knows that beating almost any Kentucky team is still a pinnacle moment for a LSU coach. In fact, it was the highest-ranked win the program has had since beating No. 3 Florida. In 2007. And was it ever a thing of beauty how the Tigers achieved it.
Even before tip-off, there were already several myth-making twists and turns, with a winter storm threatening the game, fan attendance in limbo and cancelled days of class bookending it. PA announcer Dan Borne dropped an Ice Dome reference and a "Chance of snow: Never" line in his pre-game introduction. The brew for a special night boiled over on a blistering cold Baton Rouge night. A maligned LSU student section turned out in droves, and the Tigers showed their appreciation with 40 minutes of furious and fine basketball.
The win is already a great LSU basketball moment. It will truly go down in LSU athletic lore if the Tigers turn it on over the next month and make it to the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it'll even draw fans back to the PMAC after two decades of malaise. But again, this was a rewarding win purely on its own terms.
Like the glee SEC fans get from seeing Alabama fans cry or their faces aghast in shock, there's nothing like frustrating Kentucky on the hardwood. From the outset, LSU was a step ahead of the Cats, and John Calipari was losing his mind every time the Tigers beat Kentucky for an easy bucket or a loose ball. He had to physically PUSH one of his players to attack LSU's zone the right way. He was curt and despondent for much of his postgame press conference, lamenting LSU's relentless approach: "When the other team outworks you, this is what it looks like. It was amazing we were in the game," he said.
One of the best freshmen in the country, Julius Randle, had 6 points. Willie Cauley-Stein spent much of the game on the bench, as his ineffective interior play was matched only by his arguing and screaming with assistant UK coach Kenny Payne. There were 10 first-half turnovers. LSU didn't just beat Kentucky. It caused, for all intents and purposes, a meltdown within Big Blue Nation. That's as satisfying as it gets.
None of this has even touched on LSU's play, which finally combined Jones' penchant for an up-tempo pace with a razor-sharp game plan. It was, quite simply, a pleasure to watch.
Kentucky didn't double Johnny O'Bryant III early, and he made that move regrettable by scoring 10 of LSU's first 18 points and igniting the crowd. Once Kentucky started trapping him, the Tiger shooters were good enough and the ball movement crisp enough to avoid much of a drop-off.
And there was that beautiful switch up Jones pulled. He yanked Malik Morgan from the starting five (about time) for Jarell Martin to create a forward-laden lineup that opened the game in a zone defense. It threw the Wildcats off, created a few transition looks to get that huge 22-6 lead and announced that LSU was a different team from the one that trudged through much of January.
After O'Bryant, who played the best game of his stellar career, there are almost too many superlatives to truly go in depth. Shavon Coleman finished at the rim for a sweet 14 points and was a menace on the glass with 9 boards. Jordan Mickey looks every bit like Tyrus Thomas with a jump shot, swatting five UK shots and cooly pouring in 14 points. Jarell Martin won't get a ton of pub for his night, but he was a perfect role player. Efficient on offense and pesky defensively with 3 blocks and 2 steals, the freshman rewarded Jones for starting him. Andre Stringer drained a trio of clutch 3s, played 22 solid defensive minutes and often settled a hurried offense down.
Still, special mention goes to Anthony Hickey. The diminutive point guard has puzzled fans this year, looking at times like an All-SEC guard that sparks LSU only to regress back into a poor-shooting, foul-prone letdown for games at a time. This was a defining performance for the Kentucky native. He's always keyed up for UK, and he was better than ever Tuesday night. The stats are nice, with 11 points, three steals, six assists to no turnovers and four clutch late free throws. Of all those, the dearth of turnovers stand out the most. Hickey harnessed his aggression and never pressed too much. The result was the best game of his career, one he truly controlled like an elite point guard. Good for him.
This all leaves LSU in a decent position going forward. If the Tigers are good enough to beat Kentucky at home, there's not another team left on the schedule that should win in the PMAC this year. With road games at middling Georgia and Texas A&M squads in the next few weeks, LSU needs to parlay this victory into a lengthy winning streak. Anything less will be disappointing.
Ultimately, that shouldn't be the focus for Tiger fans. Beating Kentucky is a pretty rare achievement for this program, as it was only the fifth LSU win in the last 23 tries vs. Big Blue. Two of those came in 2009, a season when an unranked Kentucky team made the NIT and LSU won the SEC. This one doesn't exactly signal a reversal of fortune toward that year's glory. But Tuesday's game was already a seminal one in the series, marking 20 years since the infamous "Mardi Gras Miracle" game when Kentucky won after trailing by 31 points,
Finally, LSU added a pretty memorable win of its own to the series: Welcome to the Ice Dome..