LSU shot just 36 percent from the floor in the loss to Vanderbilt and was even more off the mark against Auburn at 32 percent.
The Tigers hit 24 of 61 field goals against Kentucky for only 39 percent, but three consecutive 3-pointers on three straight trips down the floor allowed them to push a six point lead to 14 and put Kentucky in a hole it could not climb out of.
“Well, obviously, the two days off that we had had been very helpful,” said LSU head coach Trent Johnson. “I thought we were really fresh. I thought defensively we were probably really good to start the game. Offensively, we wanted to come into this game with few adjustments because Kentucky is long, lean and competitive.
“In all, from start to finish, I thought our energy was good. I thought defensively we were good. And offensively Tasmin and Marcus were how they've been all year, really, really consistent. “
Clinging to a three point lead in the second half, LSU went on a 7-1 run and built what was its biggest lead of the game at the 10:46 mark of the second half at 46-36. Tasmin Mitchell, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, knocked down a jumper. Thornton followed with a layup then stole the inbounds pass and found Terry Martin for a long three that he banged home and forced Wildcats’ head coach Billy Gillespie to call a timeout.
Kentucky got it down to six at 48-42 at one juncture, but a Mitchell free throw and three consecutive threes by Garrett Temple, Bo Spencer and Thornton pushed the lead to 14 at 58-44 with 5:55 left.
The Wildcats got it down to seven at 58-51 but two free throws by Spencer and a basket by Mitchell offset a pair of Kentucky baskets and put a halt to any chance of a Wildcat comeback.
“I thought LSU played really good,” said Kentucky’s Ramon Harris. “You know, they played the total game today. They went inside out. Guys were defending, they were help defending, they were rebounding, offensive rebounding. There were times when we made a defensive stand and they'd get the on offensive rebound and free throws. They just played a great game all the way around.”
Along with Thornton and Mitchell’s double figure scoring, the Tigers got 16 points from Spencer and nine from Temple. Kentucky was led by Patrick Patterson’s 15 points and Harris added 11.
The battle between the two leading scorers in the SEC was won by Thornton as the league’s No. 2 scorer connected on 8 of 17 shots including 3 of 7 from beyond the arc.
The top scorer in the conference, Jodie Meeks, was harassed all day by LSU's top defender in Temple and scored a season-low eight points. He didn’t attempt his first shot until the seven minute mark of the first half and Meeks finally got on the board with a runner in the lane with 6:23 to go until halftime.
“Well, Jodie's special. He's a special kid,” Johnson said. “I thought Garret's length really, really caused problems at times. But also I thought our help from our postman, whether it was Tas or whether it was C. J. when they were running them off staggers. Those guys are supposed to show and give Garret a count or two to get back in front of them.”
LSU shot just 31 percent in the first half and went through two long scoring droughts, but still held a 28-23 lead at the half thanks to the reigning SEC Player of the Year, Thornton. The senior from Baton Rouge played the entire first half and scored 13 points including 13 of the Tigers’ first 18.
However, just like his teammates, Thornton went silent from the field and didn’t score for the final 9:56 in the first half.
Meeks finally got going and scored two baskets in a row to help Kentucky close the gap going into the break. The Tigers didn’t help themselves much by scoring only two baskets and a free throw in the final 7:43 of the half.
LSU overcame two five minute scoring droughts to send the Wildcats home with a 20-12 record and may have busted the NCAA bubble that the Wildcats were sitting on.
The win over the Wildcats was the second of the year and LSU's first victory over Kentucky on a neutral court since 1986 when the Tigers won the Southeast Regional by a bucket and advanced to the Final Four.
LSU (26-6) will await the winner of the Mississippi State/South Carolina game. The Tigers will play either the Bulldogs or Gamecocks at Noon CST on Saturday.