Kentucky fans — and players — had reason to fret on Saturday. LSU, which has the personnel to look Kentucky in the eye and not blink, led by a point with 12 seconds remaining in overtime.
Throughout this season, Kentucky and close games have been the Wile E. Coyote and Acme Company of college basketball. The Cats had lost five of six games decided by five points or less.
Yet another occasion for defeat to explode in Kentucky's face appeared in the offing when LSU freshman Jordan Mickey easily blocked James Young's desperation flip shot in the lane.
But this time, at long last, good fortune smiled on Kentucky. The ball found its way to Julius Randle, who stood near the basket and only had to lay it in with 3.9 seconds left to give UK a 77-76 victory.
"That was the basketball gods," Randle said. " ... They had been trying to box me out the whole game. Killing me. But, luckily, that one just fell right into my hands."
Kentucky, which improved to 21-6 overall and 11-3 in the Southeastern Conference, had reason for doubt.
Former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Anthony Hickey hit a three-pointer over Willie Cauley-Stein to put LSU ahead 72-69 with 2:48 left in overtime. His layup off an inbounds pass (it must be easy to move about undetected when you're 5-foot-11) restored a three-point margin with 1:58 left.
"Plenty of times we could have put our head down," said Randle, who only scored eight points but grabbed 15 rebounds. "There was a time we did put our head down. We could have said, 'Just forget it' and lost the game.
"But we didn't. We kept fighting."
Kentucky's moment of doubt came with 20.7 seconds left in regulation. Hickey, who scored 20 points and got credit for eight assists while committing only one turnover in 40-plus minutes, hit a three-pointer with 1:46 left to put LSU ahead 64-63.
After Andrew Harrison sandwiched two misses around a Hickey miss, Kentucky was forced to foul Andre Stringer, an 83.8-percent free-throw shooter this season, with 20.7 seconds left.
"We had four guys walking back to the other foul line with their heads down," UK Coach John Calipari said. "I had to yell, 'We're winning this! We are going to win this!
"It proves we're still coach-driven instead of player-driven. We've got to get to where I'm doing less, and they're doing more."
Randle reminded his teammates of UK's last overtime game, an 87-85 thunderclap of a loss at Arkansas thanks to Michael Qualls' putback dunk in the final second.
"But that wasn't happening this time," Randle said of his and UK's resolve.
Stringer cooperated by missing the first free throw. He made the second to put UK behind 65-63.
Andrew Harrison's two free throws (fouled on the drive) tied it with 10.9 seconds left in regulation.
Hickey tried to win it in regulation. With Randle again defending him on a switch, his shot from the right wing bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
Calipari noted how Randle made Hickey's potential game-winner difficult by keeping a hand up in his eyes.
Overtime began with Johnny O'Bryant, who also scored 20 points to go along with 12 rebounds, scoring on a drive and a pull-up jumper. That served as prelude to Hickey's final clutch baskets and Randle's game-winner.
"It came down to a loose-ball war," LSU Coach Johnny Jones said. "And they were able to get that big loose ball at the end."
With UK seeking to avenge an 87-82 loss at LSU last month, the game began as a replay rather than a rematch.
As in Baton Rouge, O'Bryant loomed large as LSU took the initiative. He scored the game's first six points, which led to Cauley-Stein replacing Dakari Johnson 84 seconds after the tip-off and a UK timeout with 17:37 left.
Marcus Lee, who had played only one minute since Feb. 1, and Cauley-Stein helped UK get the better of it around the basket as the first half unfolded. Lee's putback dunk (first points since the Missouri game) and Cauley-Stein's driving dunk helped Kentucky build leads of eight points before halftime.
A rare four-point play helped LSU get within three points at halftime. Shavon Coleman, who had made six of 21 three-point shots in the previous five games, hit one from the left corner while being fouled by Randle. The four-point play set the halftime score with 1:07 left.
LSU scored the first eight points of the second half to take a 40-35 lead, and could have had more if Hickey did not miss a contested fast-break layup.
Neither team led by more than six points over the next 10 minutes. Andrew Harrison's banker in the lane put the Cats ahead 53-47 with 10:31 left.
That lead looked immense during the dramatic final minutes of the game.
Afterward, Randle was at a loss to explain exactly how he became the hero. Recalling the layups he somehow missed earlier in the game, he suggested the basketball gods balanced the scales.
"I just couldn't hit anything," he said. "I think it kind of worked in my favor. They kind of had my back."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.