BATON ROUGE, La. — The Kentucky Wildcats were playing their best basketball of the season.
There was talk of the team coming together, of loving the grind. The Cats – even John Calipari – said they were having fun.
But they stopped short of calling their recent play – seven wins in the last eight games – a breakthrough, and now everyone knows why.
Coming off perhaps its best all-around performance of the season against Georgia, UK played its worst game of the year on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La. No. 11/11 Kentucky (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) trailed from wire to wire, getting outhustled and outplayed in an 87-82 loss to LSU that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested.
“You can’t let another team outwork you on every ball, every possession, every free ball,” Coach Cal said.
You do and well, the results look like Tuesday.
UK trailed by as many as 16 points to the Tigers (13-6, 4-3 SEC) and never led. The Cats rallied to within two points late in the first half, but too many defensive breakdowns (LSU shot 50.8 percent), too much Johnny O’Bryant (season-high 29 points) and too many LSU offensive rebounds (10 of them) put the game out reach late in the second half.
The Cats buried a flurry of 3s in the final seconds, but that’s the only reason the score looked so close.
“We weren’t ready for the physicalness of the game, we weren’t ready for the energy of the game, the viciousness of the game,” Calipari said. “They beat us to every 50-50 ball, from the beginning of the game to the end.”
LSU physically out-muscled UK in the paint. The Tigers blocked 11 shots — the most rejections a Kentucky opponent has had since Feb. 25, 2009 — and limited UK leading scorer Julius Randle to 3-of-11 shooting
Over the last week, as the Cats appeared to be turning a corner, Calipari said the next step in this team’s evolution would be mental discipline. Would they move the ball? Would they play through calls and cease to pout when things don’t go their way? Would they battle through adversity on the road and come through with a much-need victory away from Rupp Arena?
No, no and no.
“When the other team outworks you, it’s just what it looks like,” Calipari said. “It was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16, it could have been 30.”
Just when it looked like the Cats had figured out their slow starts, they were walloped in the opening minutes in the frozen bayou.
LSU hit its first five shots of the game and nine of its first 12 to take a 22-6 lead. UK wasn’t only reeling on defense, where O’Bryant torched the Cats for 10 points in the first six minutes, they couldn’t hang on to the ball.
The Tigers switched defenses from man-to-man to zone on what seemed like every other possession, but the focus of attack remained the same: put pressure on UK’s ball handlers with traps and force them to make plays.
The Cats, both figuratively and literally, didn’t handle the pressure well, committing five turnovers before the first media timeout.
“I thought they’d play mostly man because that’s what they play, but the minute they went big I told the staff they’re playing zone,” Calipari said. “Normally we’re better against zone than we are against man, so it didn’t bother me, but we weren’t ready.”
The Tigers’ hot start got the fans at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, who braved nasty wintry conditions that paralyzed much of the region and shut down roads across Baton Rouge, into the game.
James Young kept the Cats afloat with 12 first-half points, but the Cats couldn’t manufacture defensive stops.
LSU, which wasn’t exactly known as an offensive juggernaut coming into the game, hit 32 of 63 field goals overall and scored 1.13 points per possession. The 50.8 field-goal percentage marks the first time UK has allowed an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent since the Feb. 16 debacle at Tennessee last season.
“You got to give them credit,” Coach Cal said. “They played well. We don’t have many teams shoot 50 percent against us like this team did. We’re a good defensive team.”
Not on this night.
O’Bryant got what he wanted when he wanted, making 12 of 20 field goals.
“Johnny O’Bryant killed us,” Calipari said. “We started the game, I didn’t want to trap. I wanted to see what could happen. Probably a mistake on my part. Should have trapped from the beginning of the game.
He wasn’t the only Tiger who had a big night. Shavon Coleman scored 14 points. Jordan Mickey had 14 points, six rebounds and five blocks. And UK continually gave up open 3-pointers in transition.
“They were just playing harder than us,” Dakari Johnson said. “They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of open 3s. We just broke down a lot defensively and they just played harder than us today.”
Johnson was one of the lone bright spots for UK on this night. The freshman center scored a career-high 15 points – nine of them in the second half — and grabbed six rebounds. When UK started to get pounded physically inside, Johnson looked like he was one of the few players fighting back.
He played three more minutes than starting center Willie Cauley-Stein, who scored just three points in 17 minutes of action. It’s the fourth game in the last five outings Cauley-Stein has been a non-factor.
“If Dakari plays like he’s playing, he’ll play the most minutes,” Coach Cal said.
The compliment was little consolation for Johnson, who shouldered the blame for O’Bryant’s big night.
“I felt like I needed to do better defensively on him and that’s on me,” Johnson said. “I could have moved my feet better, but he had a good game. He’s a real good player.”
Suddenly the Cats’ promising momentum they had built over the last month has vanished. The reality of the situation after the loss to LSU is Kentucky is just 1-3 in true road games this season and 2-5 away from Rupp Arena.
That’s troubling news for a team that plays three of its next four games on the road, including a trip on Saturday to Missouri, a team that boasted the nation’s longest home winning streak until Georgia shocked the Tigers to start conference play.
“Look, this team is in progress, a work in progress and I’ve said it: It’s all about a process,” Calipari said. “The process we’re at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to really break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn’t show it today. So now we go back and it’s the next game and we continue to work on what we have to work on for us.”
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