The perfect situation for LSU against No. 1-ranked Kentucky was a nearly flawless performance and the possibility of the Wildcats slogging through another road game against an overmatched opponent, maybe some disinterest playing into the home team's hands.
Instead, when the teams collided at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Tigers ran into the perfect storm.
Kentucky played one of its best all-around games of the season and LSU didn't have the same tenacity that has been its signature most of the season. The result was predictably ugly: Wildcats 74, Tigers 50.
"I haven't had one of those in a while," Tigers coach Trent Johnson after his team dropped its fifth game in the last six. "They beat us every which way but loose. They're pretty good."
Particularly good on Saturday.
UK coach John Calipari spent most of his postgame session with the media rattling off what his team did right and came to a conclusion many of the season-best crowd of 10,060 at the PMAC had already figured out.
"I mean we were good (Saturday)," Calipari said. "This was one of the better games we played."
For a good portion of the first half, LSU (12-9, 2-5 SEC) held up well against the Wildcats (21-1, 7-0) despite a rocky start.
Kentucky roared to a quick lead by knocking down six of its first nine field goals while the Tigers scuffled to score with only eight points in the game's initial 7:31.
The Cats expanded their lead to double digits on Darius Miller's transition 3-pointer at the 8:25 juncture and still had a cozy 24-14 lead when Anthony Davis jammed an alley-oop pass from Miller with 7:15 to go before halftime.
The next 3:24 was all LSU, though, on both ends of the floor.
Defensively the Tigers clamped down and took the tempo away from Kentucky. And with freshman forward Johnny O'Bryant providing a jolt of energy, the Tigers unloaded a 10-1 run, closing the gap to 25-24 on Storm Warren's thunderous slam dunk on a pass from Anthony Hickey.
That brought the boisterous PMAC crowd to its feet, but the Wildcats didn't falter. Marquis Teague and Miller sandwiched 3-pointers out of nice offensive sets around O'Bryant's baseline jumper. Terrence Jones grabbed Warren's miss on the LSU end and raced the other way for a fast-break layup and suddenly the one-point advantage had swelled to 33-26.
The Tigers missed three more shots to finish the half and Jones converted a pair of free throws for a 35-26 halftime lead.
"After we swung the momentum our way, they stayed poised and just played their game," Warren said.
The Wildcats were far from finished – Jones in particular.
Kentucky came out in a new gear to start the second half and ran LSU ragged.
Jones produced points on four of the first five Wildcats possessions – all in transition – and capped his own 9-0 surge with a three-point play at the 17:02 mark that put UK in front 44-26.
Warren stopped the bleeding with a mid-range jumper and Andre Stringer drove the lane for another hoop. But the Cats kept pressing the accelerator and flustered LSU inside with Jones and Davis crashing the boards for second, third and fourth-shot opportunities.
"When we had that little run there where we got down (25-24) – and I don't want to say it was fool's gold – but we got away from doing what got us there," Johnson said.
"The only thing that's disturbing to me is, forget the score, during the course of the second half, we just stopped fighting and stopped competing and that's the first time I've seen that from this group. That sort of bothers me. It really bothers me."
Frustration got the best of LSU senior Malcolm White during Kentucky's game-deciding blitz.
Davis swiped a ball near the key as the Tigers were looking for s shot. As David dribbled down the floor, White raised both arms and crashed them down on Davis' shoulders as he neared the basket for a breakaway layup.
The play was immediately ruled an intentional foul and several players converged and had to be separated as tempers flared. Calipari ran out to check on Davis and barked at both White and the officials before order was quickly restored. The officials reviewed the play, and White was called for a flagrant-two foul and ejected.
"That's not what we're about," Johnson said. "You make a hard play on the ball. It makes no sense.
"I struggle with that kind of play. That ain't good. It's one thing to foul a kid hard in the confines of a game going to the basket, but the bottom line is, you've got to be tough enough and can't get frustrated because he's handing your tail and you can't guard him. That bothers me."
The Kentucky lead stayed around 21 points until Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fed Miller and Doron Lamb for back-to-back 3-pointers that bloated the score to 62-35 midway through the second half.
That took away whatever starch the Tigers had left and made for an unsavory ending for Johnson. LSU has made a habit of playing hard start-to-finish this season, but that trend screeched to a halt against the athleticism and constant defensive pressure of Kentucky.
The Wildcats finished with 8 blocks (3 apiece by Jones and Davis) and 8 steals and dominated LSU with 14 fast-break points and 20 more on second chances.
"When people you are playing against are tough, athletic, physical, skilled and good, that messes with you mentally," Johnson said.
"It's not like that should have surprised us. Still, you have push through that, fight through that, and we didn't do that."
A brief flurry by Hickey – he scored his only five points on back-to-back possessions – and Justin Hamilton got the deficit back to 21 points. But most of the rest of the day featured an LSU team emotionally drained and physically beaten.
"Everybody hates to lose, and this is a game we knew was going to be a battle," said Warren, who scored 11 points off the bench. O'Bryant led the Tigers with 12 points and 9 rebounds in his first start since Jan. 2.
"We were looking forward to it being a way closer game. It's pretty devastating to us."
Saturday's game was also the last of a grinding January stretch when LSU played four road games in six and faced four ranked teams – the last three games in a row, culminating with No. 1.
Starting next Saturday against Arkansas, the Tigers played five of their next eight contests in Baton Rouge and also face three teams with .500 records or worse (South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia).
"It's been a tough January," Johnson said. "If we're as good as we think we are, if we're as good as I think we can be, we'll get it all done in February.
Added Hamilton, who was limited to 7 points and 3 rebounds before fouling out after only 19 minutes, "We had an up-and-down January. I think we grew as a team. We knew this would be a tough stretch. Now we just need to focus on closing out the season and taking it to Arkansas."
Johnson also made a plea to make sure the Tigers don't go through the next phase of their schedule alone.
He apologized to the LSU fan base for Saturday's clunker and said "I just hope they don't get down on this group because this group is going to need them in February."
Jones torched the Tigers for 27 points, 17 in the second half, and snared 9 rebounds. Davis scored 16 and grabbed 10 boards. And Miller finished with 13 points and led UK's 7-for-15 shooting day from 3-point range by going 3-of-5.