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LSU 85, No. 9 Kentucky 67: The Twilight Zone

Welcome to LSU basketball in 2016. Down is up and the Tigers just whooped Kentucky.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

What the hell was that, exactly?

In many ways, it felt like an alternate reality version of LSU basketball. You’re telling me the Tigers made all the big plays in a resume-building win, really showing dramatic improvement from an early-season version of itself? It was far from an expected narrative for this team even a week ago. And that in-season progression hasn’t been a hallmark of Johnny Jones’ teams here. It’s like SEC play finally woke this team up.

Beating Kentucky, regardless of LSU’s future NCAA hopes, is just plain fun for the program, and Johnny Jones now has a pair of wins over John Calipari in four seasons. Despite LSU’s rapid turn into the team most expected in the preseason, this 18-point bludgeoning was no accident. There was nothing fluky about this win. LSU was flat-out better than the Cats on Tuesday night.

They stopped UK’s 22-game league winning streak. The Tigers out rebounded Kentucky by 14. Three players finished with double-doubles. They fouled two Kentucky bigs out of the game midway through the second half. Any time UK looked like it was ready to push LSU to the brink, LSU had every answer. Those are just refreshing facts to type. It was one of the most satisfying wins for this program in the Jones era.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Ben Simmons who led the charge. Simmons earned a pair of cheap early fouls and sat for the final 10 minutes of the opening half. LSU responded admirably. Aaron Epps hit a couple 3-pointers, Craig Victor posted a 13 and 12 while being a stalwart defensively, and Keith Hornsby got some crucial buckets to keep the lead comfortable at 10 going into halftime. The next time someone tells you that people overrated LSU’s talent this year because of Ben Simmons, just show them the first-half film.

Of course, it’s easy when a versatile and gifted basketball talent like Tim Quarterman really comes to play. He’d only taken 16 shots (four made) in his previous four games but he poured in 21 points, mostly on treys or tricky contested runners near the rim. He meant so much more than his scoring output, though. Quarterman was the star, plain and simple, impacting the game in every way like we’re used to seeing Simmons do.

Quarterman added seven assists and 10 rebounds, making him the only SEC player beside Simmons to post such a line this season. He didn’t turn the ball over once, chased UK’s dynamic guards around all night and overall looked like the mature upperclassmen at point guard. His night was best exemplified when he picked up a loose ball on defense, eluded a UK defender and tossed a half-court alley oop to Simmons. That play electrified the crowd and LSU pulled away shortly after.

He wasn’t alone, either. Jalyn Patterson, finally healthy after a leg injury, made some clutch plays down the stretch. The sophomore’s offensive rebound and baseline drive put LSU up 70-59 and Kentucky never got closer after that. He finished with a mere six points thanks to a three called off by a shot clock violation, but he was also active rebounding and chasing a game Tyler Ulis. Just a totally unsung player this season making the game-sealing plays LSU has been missing in so many close losses.

Simmons wasn’t about to be left out. If his teammates delivered the body blows, Simmons put UK on the mat in the final minutes. He posted six straight points to stretch the lead out to 18 and rewarded the fans who stayed to revel in the win with a pair of electrifying dunks. 14 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes was a "quiet" night for him. ESPN didn't get to fawn over him all night, and he still gave them highlight-reel material.

For this one to resonate beyond this week, LSU needs to play like this on a consistent basis. No doubt it’s hard to replicate the motivation provided by the opponent or a truly amped PMAC crowd. But this is what these talented Tigers are capable of, and I don’t just mean purely winning games. There was crisp execution and locked-in defensive effort. The shot selection was decent and offensive sets were actually run. They put in the gritty work on the glass. Those are the aspects of the game LSU needs to bring every time out, because they’re more talented than 11 out of the other 13 SEC teams.

There’s no doubt LSU found itself a bit this past week. Will it be enough? Beating Kentucky at least gives the Tigers a marquee win. January has plenty of challenges ahead, starting with an improved Florida team in Gainesville on Saturday. This win means little unless LSU can consolidate by going a minimum of 5-2 the rest of this month. That’s how dire the non-conference results were.

But honestly, there’s plenty of time to parse through those concerns in the coming weeks. LSU beat Kentucky for just the 26th time in 112 tries, and they thoroughly dominated them to boot.

Let’s just bask in that golden glow for a while.