As the Wildcats smirked, Johnny O’Bryant worked. Which is why his LSU Tigers seized control of a game played in a town being buffeted by a rare combination of ice and sleet, and laid a searing beat-down on the nation’s 11th-ranked team in Baton Rouge.
The final was 87-82, but it wasn’t that close.
O’Bryant went for a career-high 29 points and got a ton of help from his friends. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s main post presence, Julius Randle, was zoned into jail at the start of the night and never could break free, despite a career-high 15 points and six rebounds from fellow post player Dakari Johnson.
It was Johnson playing a majority of the minutes in lieu of Willie Cauley-Stein, who along with the Harrison twins, became the focal point of Mardi Gras Magic – they disappeared for much of the game.
Aaron banked in a three-pointer with 42 seconds left to cut the deficit to 83-76, but it was the first trey landed by either twin, and it matched his brother’s total of eight points. Then Aaron bombed in two more to help his team cut it to five, but instead of fouling, the Wildcats inexplicably melted away and LSU happily ran out the clock.
The Tigers were successful at what Tennessee attempted: Play physical basketball inside, make life miserable for Randle and dare the Wildcats to beat you from the perimeter.
James Young did have a big game with 23 points, but they weren’t enough to offset the paltry six points from Randle. Johnson helped, but the Cats didn’t get much of anything from Cauley-Stein, who after a big effort in the Georgia game seemingly had left his funk behind. Turns out, it was waiting for him on the bayou.
Cauley-Stein was ineffective when it came to protecting the rim. In fact, the Kentucky defense as a whole was slow to react all night, which is why the Tigers raced out to a huge early advantage, saw Kentucky make a run late in the first half, and then stormed out of the locker room in the second half intent on putting the Cats back in the deep freeze.
With O’Bryant hitting practically everything he put up, LSU jumped out to an early 21-6 margin. The UK offense finally woke up but the Cats still trailed, 25-11 at the 12:00 mark of the first half.
Somehow, they managed to cut it to two at 29-27 late in the first period. With 5:04 left, O’Bryant missed a jumper and the Wildcats had a chance to tie. But instead of working clock and forcing the Tigers to play some defense, Young, who had hit a couple of treys early, launched a quick triple and missed. LSU rebounded and then scored back-to-back buckets, reclaiming the momentum.
The Cats were down just seven at intermission, but the Tigers came out smoking, quickly scored twice and forced John Calipari into an early timeout. Didn’t help.
LSU kept pouring on the pressure and worked its way to a 15-point lead, 75-60, with 7:11 remaining.
During one timeout, ESPN aired some particularly telling video. One camera captured Calipari lunging onto the court and shoving Andrew Harrison from behind, urging him to move to a different spot on the court. Apparently, standing in front of the Kentucky bench was the wrong place to be.
And another iso shot revealed Cauley-Stein bickering with assistant coach Kenny Payne, who works in practice with the big men. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich correctly pointed out that Cauley-Stein’s only move right there should have been nodding his head to whatever Payne was saying.
The Tigers led by 12, 83-70, with 73 seconds left, when the teams started trading – Kentucky hitting three-pointers, LSU answering with deuces. It’s not a bad equation for the trailing team as long as you have enough time to finish the comeback, which the Wildcats didn’t – especially when they failed to stop the clock by fouling in the final seconds.
Calipari told ESPN sideline reporter Shannon Spake in a mid-game interview that this kind of game was “good” for the Wildcats, a line he’s used on several occasions with his young teams. And maybe it will be.
But what appears to be happening is that teams have figured it out – take it right to the Wildcats and be physical inside, but hit enough outside shots to keep them honest. And at the other end, throw a dragnet over Randle and dare the others to stop you.
On a frigid night in Louisiana, it worked. Kentucky got burned.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)