Eighth-seeded LSU (18-13) gets its shot at top seed and No. 1-ranked Kentucky (30-1) in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals Friday after the Tigers put together one of their best all-around performances of the season to clip Arkansas 70-54 on Thursday.
Three games from the end of the regular season, LSU was 17-10 and in good position to earn a first-day bye in the league tournament. But losses to Ole Miss, Tennessee and Auburn turned a potential top-four finish into an eight-place spot – opposite the mighty Wildcats in the second round of the SEC bracket.
That didn't seem to faze the Tigers much Thursday, though.
"We're looking to fight from beginning to end," Warren said. "Everybody knows Kentucky is a tough one and we're looking to compete."
The last meeting with UK didn't turn out so great for the Tigers: A 74-50 loss in Baton Rouge that matched their worst loss of the season.
LSU hung around for much of the first half, actually pulling within 25-24 on a Warren slam dunk. But the Cats rattled off the last nine points of the first half and ran away and his after that, prompting LSU coach Trent Johnson to surmise his team "stopped fighting and stopped competing."
The Tigers are a different team now, though.
They won four in a row to climb to 17-10 in late February before the three-game skid. Thursday's win was more reminiscent of the turnaround and that provides a glimmer of hope on Friday.
|Anthony Hickey and Trent Johnson want a better showing against Kentucky this time around.|
But Kentucky hasn't exactly faded down the stretch. Instead UK rolled to a 16-0 finish in the SEC, winning nine times by 13 points or more.
Johnson liked the competitive nature of his team Thursday, but was quick to transition to a comparison to the Wildcats.
"That's what's really special about this group we're going to play (Friday)," Johnson said. "They compete like the living dickens. You've got a bunch of guys that are highly ranked and all that, but they play for each other and they play extremely hard. … Forget their talent level and how well they're coached, they're a competitive group."
Front (court) and center
Five players scored in double digits for LSU Thursday against Arkansas, led by freshman forward Johnny O'Bryant's 18 points. He also grabbed 11 rebounds for his second double-double of the season.
Anchored by O'Bryant, the LSU frontcourt bounced back from a miserable day at Auburn in the regular-season finale: 2-for-19 from the floor and 8 points total.
O'Bryant, center Justin Hamilton and Warren teamed up for 42 points and 25 rebounds and scored 27 of the Tigers' 42 second-half points. The trio was 15-of-29 from the floor and O'Bryant was 10-of-17 from the free-throw line.
"He was a beast," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Thursday afternoon. "He was as good as any big guy I watched all day. Going after balls. Scoring around the basket. Playing with a smile on his face."
In the first game with the Wildcats, O'Bryant scored 12 points and snatched 8 rebounds. His 11-rebound day Thursday was his third of the season and he has also a game with 10 to match Hamilton in double-digit rebounding games this season.
In the past
The first LSU-Kentucky game was marred by a flagrant-two foul on Tigers' senior Malcolm White when he pulled Wildcats star Antony Davis down from behind.
|Malcolm White stepped out of character on this play in the first game with the Wildcats when he was tagged with a flagrant-two foul and ejected.|
White was ejected and Johnson suspended him for the next game. The day after the incident, White sent letters of apology to Davis and Calipari.
"I got caught up in the heat of the moment and made a bad play," White said Wednesday. "That's not how I play or who I am. I made a mistake and I apologized for it. Calipari wrote me back and told me I was a good player and it was over with – that I needed to just go and play."
Calipari echoed those thoughts Thursday.
"Everything is good," he said. "Just go out and play basketball, and I think that's what we'll all do. We're fine. I don't think he meant to hurt him. It looks awful. I don't think the kid has any ill will toward us or Anthony.
"People play against us, they're grabbing what's extra in their body to try to beat us. Sometimes that stuff comes out."
While that incident won't factor into the rematch, Calipari said he does expect the Tigers to be physical with his young team.
"Yeah, they probably will," he said. "One of their advantages is they can try to physically bump us a little bit. But we've seen a lot of that."
Little bit of everything
It's been an up-and-down season for LSU sophomore guards Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer, who came back this season as the Tigers two top leading scorers (12.3 and 11.2 ppg, respectively, in 2010-11).
But those two turned in what might've been their best all-around games this season to help spur LSU past Arkansas.
Turner scored 10 points, snatched a career-high 8 rebounds and passed off a season-high 4 assists. Stringer notched 11 points, hit 3-of-4 from 3-point range, grabbed 4 rebounds, dished off 3 assists and had a pair of steals.
Anthony Hickey chimed in as well. He only scored 7 points, but registered 7 assists – a season-high and his third game this season against an SEC opponent.
Johnson and has assistant coaches, trainers and managers eschewed the sweater vests they had worn in every game during the regular season and were back in suits Thursday.
Asked about the sartorial switch, Johnson said, with his tongue firmly in cheek, "Yeah, well we're not very superstitious in the coaching profession. Those damn sweater vests weren't working the past two weeks, so we thought we would just wear suits. That had a lot to do with it."