After so much ugly basketball – the missed shots, the turnovers, the fouls – 31 minutes into its visit to the bayou, Kentucky trailed LSU by just four. Alex Poythress had sliced through the paint and dropped in a layup, pulling the Wildcats to within 58-54.
Nine minutes later it was a rout.
The Tigers boiled the Wildcats like so much crawfish, 85-67 the final, despite a relatively modest showing by uber-freshman Ben Simmons. Saddled with early foul trouble, the incredibly gifted point forward was content to let his teammates do the heavy lifting and they handled it just fine, thank you.
Tim Quarterman pumped in a team-high 21, including a three-pointer that stretched the lead back to seven just a few seconds after the layup by Poythress. On Kentucky’s next possession, Craig Victor (15 points, 12 rebounds) stole the ball from Jamal Murray, who chased him down the court and fouled him just as Victor was sinking a layup. The ensuing free throw finished off a 6-0 mini-run and the lead was back to 10. Kentucky never could apply much pressure after that.
Simmons did end up getting his, yet another double-double of 14 points (5-of-5 shooting from the floor) and 10 rebounds. The much-awaited “matchup” with Skal Labissiere never materialized; the UK freshman finishing with only three points and two rebounds in just 16 minutes. They never really guarded each other and there was no question about which player possesses the more superior skills.
Even so, the Tigers didn’t really need Simmons’ outrageous abilities for much of the game. They held the Wildcats to just 41.4 percent shooting (7-of-20 beyond the arc) and crushed Kentucky on the boards, 46-32.
Time after time, LSU attacked the rim, taking advantage of early foul problems for Labissiere and junior Marcus Lee, who played a total of six minutes, tallying two rebounds and five fouls. For him it was almost a wasted trip to Baton Rouge, except for the fact that it underscored just how acutely Kentucky needs his presence inside. Without Lee, the Wildcats just couldn’t keep the Tigers out of the paint and off the glass.
Tyler Ulis did what he could on offense, scoring a game-high 23, along with six assists. Murray chipped in with 21 but only four of those came in the first half, which ended with LSU up by 10. Murray still seems to be adhering to the mysterious pattern of needing the first 20 minutes to get loose.
Each time out, this young team learns something new about itself and re-confirms what it already knew coming in. Tuesday night in Baton Rouge the Wildcats were reminded not only of how vital Lee is, but how much it needs Poythress in beast mode. The bucket he scored to pull the Cats to within four was only his second – and last – of the night, to go along with just four rebounds. Poythress also carried heavy foul burden and committed his fifth with 7:29 remaining.
No Poythress, no Lee, no hope. The only thing Kentucky got from its inside players, John Calipari told the media later, “was a bunch of fouls.” True what he said.
"We can't afford to have 2-3 guys not play well,” Calipari said. “We'll be donuts. We're not that good."
He had a similar message on his post-game radio show. “We got killed at the four and five (positions)," he said. "Murdered... They gave us absolutely nothing."
And now the Wildcats hit the road again, with a trip to Alabama beckoning this weekend. They need to pack up the lesson they learned in Baton Rouge from the guys in purple and gold and take it along to Tuscaloosa: Even in your best player is struggling, when everyone else pitches in, you have a big chance.
Tough lesson to learn.