Date story published: Sunday, February 16, 2003
Yesterday saw Rupp Arena visited by unidentified flying objects: Clutch Kentucky free throws flew through the air.
That alien sight punctuated a 68-57 Kentucky victory over LSU that strayed from recent custom. Oh, the Cats got in position for yet another blowout. If you're counting, a ninth straight victory by 15 or more points seemed in the offing when the UK lead reached 20 points with almost six minutes left.
"We could have easily had a 20-point win or a 30-point win," Gerald Fitch said. "We got comfortable with ourselves."
LSU, which kept it close throughout the first half by slowing the pace and playing tenacious defense, capitalized on UK's relaxation. Riding Panamanian center Jaime Lloreda (18 points and nine rebounds), the Tigers reduced the deficit to 62-57 with 40 seconds left.
Kentucky extended its winning streak to 14 games (longest since 1996-97) by making six of six free throws thereafter.
Each team left Rupp Arena satisfied.
No. 3 Kentucky, 20-3 overall and 10-0 in the Southeastern Conference, showed it could win when its own nonchalance turned a second half into more than just a formality.
"Certainly you can get complacent and think it's just going to happen," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "I sensed that going into the game. There was a lot of hype. ... We have to learn to deal with prosperity and handle it."
LSU, 14-9 overall and 3-8 in the SEC, was happy to be competitive.
"This is better than coming out of here with our heads down and losing by 35," Coach John Brady said.
Kentucky's last two home games were decided by halftime or shortly thereafter. The Cats led then-No. 1 Florida 45-22 at intermission and led No. 20 Georgia by 23 less than four minutes into the second half. "The stat that scared me the most," Brady said.
LSU hung tough by making it a half-court game. Only one fast-break opportunity in the first 14 minutes contributed to Kentucky's opening 3-for-17 shooting.
"That had a lot to do with LSU's excellent defense," Smith said. "They trapped the post and made us go to our second or third option."
Kentucky broke the game open midway through the second half. Ahead 38-31, Keith Bogans rebounded Antwain Barbour's air-ball three-point shot, dribbled to the right corner and swished a trey with 11:31 left. That gave UK its first double-digit lead and started a 19-6 run.
"No one boxed me out," Bogans said. "I just found an open lane to the basket. When I turned around, no one was guarding me, so I took the shot. I'm not shy about shooting. If I'm open, I'll take some shots."
After getting ahead 57-37 with 5:53 left, Kentucky scored only two more baskets (or half its number of turnovers) the rest of the way.
A 9-0 LSU run set up the unusually interesting closing stretch.
"That said that they weren't going to beat the hell out of us," said LSU's leading scorer, Ronald Dupree, who was held to 10 points. "We weren't nervous at all. That's why we made the run at the end."
LSU hit three of its four second-half three-pointers down the stretch. Lloreda scored eight of his points in the final 4:04.
"I told the team if we didn't come up here with the mindset of being tough and throwing the first punch, we wouldn't have a chance," Brady said. "Our team was able to throw a few punches before Kentucky beat us up."
Kentucky did not execute flawlessly down the stretch. Besides the four turnovers, Bogans took an ill-advised shot from a kneeling position with UK leading 61-50. A rebound found its way to him on the floor. Rather than call timeout with 90 seconds left, Bogans shot.
"Not a good shot," he acknowledged. "A guy was holding my legs. I couldn't get up. I should have called time.
"Today we were lucky in the way we played in closing it out. Maybe this is the type of game we needed to get our focus back.
"We've been playing well. But that can't last forever. You want it to, but it can't last forever."
Smith, too, was philosophical.
"We have not been in this situation for a while," the UK coach said. "This is something we can learn from."