NEW ORLEANS -- With less than 24 hours to get ready after one of its best performances of the season, the underdog LSU basketball team came out with a very effective recipe for a major upset against No. 1-ranked Kentucky.
Try as they might, though, the Tigers couldn’t come up with one of the primary ingredients required for the stunner.
LSU put up a gritty fight for 33½ minutes Friday at New Orleans Arena, but couldn’t overcome a miserable shooting day as the Wildcats eased away for a 60-51 triumph in an SEC Tournament quarterfinal game.
The Tigers stood toe-to-toe with Kentucky for most of the game, something nobody expected – including very few in the predominantly blue-clad crowd.
Nobody except the group inside the LSU locker room.
“We had confidence coming into this game and came out and played our hearts out,” Tigers guard Andre Stringer said.
That confidence was apparent on the defensive end in particular and that was a big reason why LSU (18-14) stuck around.
The Tigers forced nine UK turnovers in each half and played sticky defense on the interior in the first 20 minutes, making it difficult for Anthony Davis to get shots.
|Andre Stringer scored 11 points, but Kentucky's defense was tough to solve inside, especially forward Anthony Davis, who records one of his 6 blocks on this shot.|
The Wildcats (31-1) never got into a rhythm because of their offensive struggles and LSU managed to take an early lead on back-to-back 3-pointers from Stringer and Ralston Turner and held onto the advantage for much of the first half.
As good as the Tigers’ defense was, though, their shooting touch was equally as bad. They hit only 9-of-36 (25%) in the first 20 minutes and missed the last six shots they tried before halftime, allowing Kentucky to slip in front 25-24 at the intermission.
When Michael Kidd-Gilchrist converted a three-point play on the Wildcats’ first possession of the second period, it looked like Big Blue was poised to take off with the kind of patented run-away-and-hide outburst that has been a signature this season.
Instead, LSU reasserted itself on defense with a pair of steals that fueled an 11-2 outburst with Turner cranking in a 3-pointer, Storm Warren swooping in for a shot and Stringer turning a steal into a breakaway layup – all in transition.
That mini burst of five consecutive offensive trips with points was the Tigers’ longest of the day and gave them a 35-30 lead that prompted Wildcats coach John Calipari to call a timeout at the 16:51 juncture.
With the raucous UK crowd quieted, LSU had control of the game.
“We came out and got some confidence going,” said Anthony Hickey, a defensive spark plug all day long with a season-high 5 steals. “We used our defense to create offense and that’s what we had to do to beat Kentucky.”
That and make a few shots, which ultimately was a chore the Tigers could never complete consistently.
After Calipari’s timeout, LSU went 5:05 without scoring, with seven missed field goals and four turnovers. The Wildcats still didn’t catch fire, but the Tigers’ inability to score provided enough of a respite for Kentucky to score nine unanswered points – all from Terrence Jones, who finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
By game’s end, the Wildcats had gotten 46 points and 34 boards from their frontcourt (Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones), along with 8 blocked shots – 6 by Davis, who padded his nation-leading total to 152.
“We knew Kentucky was a great team and it wasn’t going to be easy to beat them,” said Warren, who led the Tigers with 14 points. “We had to be right and stay together and fight from beginning to the end. That’s not easy because Kentucky has some many weapons.”
Those different weapons weren’t going to stay quiet for 40 minutes, either.
LSU coach Trent Johnson said he implored his team that the Wildcats were poised for a run.
“I told them ‘Here comes the run,’ ” Johnson said.
“They’ve got great players, so they’re going to make a push and they did a good job of taking us out of some of stuff offensively.”
Right about then, Kentucky also found some operating room inside.
Hickey ended LSU’s dry spell with a coast-to-coast drive against the press to pull the Tigers within 39-37 at the 11:40 mark.
But Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis – limited to one missed field-goal attempt and 1 point in the first half – combined for 10 points over the next 3½ minutes as the lead stretched to eight points.
|Storm Warren: 14 points and 6 rebounds in a passionate effort|
Stringer stopped the bleeding with a pair of foul shots and consecutive steals by Stringer and Hickey led directly to fast-break hoops by Warren and Stringer, the last closing the gap to 49-45.
“They had a great game plan,” Calipari said of the Tigers. “They played physical, did what they had to do to give them a chance to win.”
That four-point rally was the last gasp for LSU, though. Calipari got a timeout after the Tigers got within four and on the ensuing possession, Davis whipped Johnny O’Bryant on a post spin move for a bank shot and O’Bryant’s fifth foul.
Down the stretch, LSU missed nine of its last 12 field goals and couldn’t come up with a pair of loose balls that the Tigers out-hustled Kentucky to with the kind of hustle it had shown all day long.
The Tigers finished the day shooting 29.4% (20 of 68). Center Justin Hamilton missed 11 of the 12 shots he launched and O’Bryant was only 1-for-5 after scoring 18 points Thursday in a win against Arkansas. No Tiger shot better than 50% from the field.
“A tough, tough, tough loss,” Johnson said. “I thought we competed as hard and as good as we have all year. It’s unfortunate for us that we had some shots that didn’t go down for us.”
Now LSU is in a holding pattern until Sunday, when postseason tournament invitations are extended. The Tigers won’t get to the NCAA Tournament, but are a possible NIT participant, and there are also possible spots in the CBI and CIT events.
After artfully dodging questions about a potential NIT berth earlier in the week, Johnson was more direct when asked about it Friday and passionate when asked if hoped to coach his 2011-12 team beyond the loss to UK.
“I feel like this team that I’m fortunate enough to coach is worthy of the NIT without question,” Johnson said. ”
“I want to continue coach because I want these guys to continue to play because they’re very deserving.”