This was the moment LSU basketball has been waiting for.
And they almost had it.
In a game that truly had everything, the Tigers gave a near-sellout crowd and a national ESPN audience everything possible. Dunks. Dancing cone cheerleaders. Alley-oops, blocks, 21-2 runs, stifling defense and phenomenal individual offense. It was a legitimate antidote and antithesis to #SECBasketballFever, with the exception of a Wildcats win.
The difference? Kentucky just knows how to close, and LSU doesn't, at least not yet. The Tigers have now had leads during the final four minutes in six of their seven defeats. UK, meanwhile, keeps holding off supercharged SEC teams, one after another. To borrow a script from LSU's most prominent coach (who cheered from the student section for a bit), it's old hat at this point.
While it absolutely stings that the result turned in favor of the visiting cats, there's just so much to parse through here. Again, I've never seen a regular-season LSU game this hyped or this relevant, both in Baton Rouge and beyond. It was a seminal moment for the program, but one whose shortcomings also reflect on the program's larger-scale deficiencies.
Let's take you through the game a little bit, though.
The Tigers hopped out to a 14-6 lead behind a couple of electric dunks each from Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey. More on them later. Kentucky slowly and assuredly moved the game in its favor, tying things up in the later minutes of the first half and looking every bit the part of a mature, championship team to reach halftime with a 38-34 advantage.
The pendulum kept extending the Cats way to open the second half and they overwhelmed LSU down low, punctuated by some monster throw downs from Willie Cauley-Stein, who had at least four resounding dunks, a couple of them over Mickey, a notorious shot-blocking fiend. Mid-way through the final period, Kentucky held a 58-45 lead.
Then, things turned in a way I don't know that I've ever seen in many other Tiger games. LSU unleashed a 21-2 run, most of it after a UK technical foul. They did this against the now 24-0, No-1 ranked Kentucky. Who is still the odds-on favorite to win the national championship. Who has two platoons full of 5-star players. Who might go undefeated. It was glorious, with Keith Hornsby draining a 3-pointer and picking off a pass to give LSU a 6-point lead on a transition lay-in. Martin flushed an outback. Josh Gray drilled a 3-pointer and Mickey snaked in a couple high-difficulty leaners. And damn, the PMAC actually sounded like the Deaf Dome of old.
It didn't hold up. Though the game came down to the final possession, it was really lost as the Tigers made one free throw and one shot in the last seven minutes, and only got two shots off, period, in the final 4:01. Kentucky managed to find just enough offense from the foul stripe and via offensive rebounds to hang on.
Which brings us to the last 90 seconds of the game, which opened many national observers' eyes to something many LSU fans know about Johnny Jones. He's underwhelming at best and outright awful at worst when it comes to drawing up sets out of timeouts. Full stop. And it cost LSU at the worst time on Tuesday.
When LSU called timeout at the 5-second mark of the shot clock 56 seconds left, there were two fairly obvious mistakes. The timeout should have been called 7-10 seconds earlier, as LSU wandered through an aimless possession. Then, the ball should not have been in Josh Gray's hands. Gray is hardly LSU's best deep threat, had been a bit careless with the ball all game and he took the inbounds pass near mid court. Driving was not a good option either, since he'd been getting stuffed and thwarted all game by Kentucky's imposing frontline. It was puzzling, mostly indefensible and uninspiring.
Then, in the game's final sequence, Jones called for Hornsby to play for the win with a 3-pointer. Going for the 3 there is more than defensible, since Kentucky's depth would give it an advantage in overtime. But the play didn't do anything substantial to free him up and the shot was beyond forced because of it. LSU had two possessions to effectively win or tie in the waning moments and really never sniffed the rim or put the ball in Martin or Mickey's hands. After a valiant effort, it felt a lot like coaching couldn't get out of the way of what the players built in the first 38 minutes.
Which is a total shame, because I give that team and staff total credit in one respect. They fed off the crowd, usually with some poise and grit. Jones had the team mostly prepared to play, spreading minutes well and fairly, and generally having a decent defensive zone look to keep UK from crushing LSU in the paint. They came back from double digits against one of the best teams we've seen in recent college basketball history. LSU had Kentucky dead to rights.
It all revolved around Martin and Mickey. Though they looked the part of dominant twin towers in non-conference play, they've mostly rotated good games in conference play, with Martin sorta struggling to assert himself and Mickey having turnover issues. They showed up in a big way Tuesday, answering the bell to the tune of 37 points and 18 rebounds against the best and deepest front court in college basketball. They were a combined 14-23 from the field, had six offensive rebounds, only turned the ball over twice and bruised with Cauley-Stein, stud Karl Anthony-Towns and Dakari Johnson down low. This was the performance we've waited for from those two. Unfortunately, with so many pro scouts in the house, it might have been the game to send one or both of them off to the NBA sooner rather than later. (Side note: I use unfortunately only because I think both need another year to be first rounders and second rounders aren't guaranteed a roster spot. Plus, LSU with them next year would be loaded.)
So where does LSU go from here? There's two ways to answer this.
In the short term, this is damaging to LSU. A win would have given the Tigers the most valuable NCAA Tournament chip in the country, all but assuring them a berth come March. This game was not so much disappointing resume-wise for the loss itself, but the fact that LSU needed it so badly in the first place after defeats to Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri. The Tigers have a couple good wins, a decent RPI, some horrific losses and a lot of close games under their belt. With seven SEC games left, LSU probably needs, at minimum, a 5-2 run and two SEC Tournament Ws. We'll see if this game ignites the Tigers' belief in themselves or saps them of emotion going forward.
In the long run, this was a net positive for this program. As I said earlier, this was about as anticipated an LSU game as I can remember. Students were lining up 3 hours before tip and packed the place to the rafters. People were clamoring about get-off-of work notes provided by the athletic department. Traffic was abnormally and especially awful in the hour before the game, a sign of any major event in Baton Rouge. No. 3 recruit Malik Newman was in the house. And while it's still probable he'll choose Kentucky, he at least got a taste of what the PMAC and LSU can be, even moreso with Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney coming next fall. There are no moral victories for the team, but I think most of the 13,111 in the crowd would happily venture back for more games if LSU is competitive down the stretch. This program has a little juice.
Overall, though, it was another in a long line of frustrating close calls for the program. Yet, the close calls have rarely felt this invigorating instead of hollow and disappointing. A loss, but not one LSU fans will rush to forget any time soon.