Date story published: Sunday, February 26, 2006
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Kentucky validated its recent winning streak as real improvement and not merely the product of inferior competition. UK also did a better job keeping its composure under dire circumstances. UK also made clutch plays at both ends of the floor, a bugaboo in several close losses this season.
But rather than punctuate that improvement with an exclamation-point victory at No. 24 Louisiana State, Kentucky put several question marks on the end of a 71-67 defeat here yesterday.
Thanks to two straight three-pointers by gutsy Patrick Sparks, UK tied it at 67-67 with 27.7 seconds left. Then came the question marks.
With 13.2 seconds left, Ravi Moss fouled a driving Darrel Mitchell, who was hobbled by a turned ankle and struggling through a 3-for-12 shooting afternoon. Mitchell's free throws put LSU ahead by two.
After LSU called time to plot its defensive strategy, the Cats looked not to Sparks (its hottest shooter) nor to center Randolph Morris (its leading scorer with 17 points).
UK went to ... junior forward Sheray Thomas?
Tightly guarded by role player Darnell Lazare, Thomas shot an air ball from the right block. LSU's Glen Davis, a monster all afternoon with 28 points and 15 rebounds, corralled the loose ball. His two free throws with eight-tenths of a second left sealed the victory.
"Unexpected, but that's the kind of guy Tubby Smith is," Davis said of Thomas taking the shot. "That guy was playing good the whole game. ... Being the coach he is, he's going to rely on the guy that's getting it done."
Smith called the same play that Chuck Hayes used to beat LSU in last year's Southeastern Conference Tournament. Hayes went left around Davis for a layup.
Thomas, who played well (nine points and three rebounds), was inclined to make the same move.
"I should have," he said. "At the last second, I decided to change it. The left-hand hook was there."
Thomas, who said he had not taken a make-or-break shot since high school, took responsibility for the loss. UK fell to 18-10 overall and 8-6 in the SEC.
"This one was on me," he said. "I lost the game."
In explaining the decision, Smith noted (correctly) that LSU would concentrate on Morris and Sparks. Although the UK coach added, "Patrick was wide open. We should have gotten it to him sooner."
But Smith dismissed the need to go to Sparks, a notoriously streaky three-pointer shooter, in that situation.
"It's a two-point game," the UK coach said. "We're trying to tie it right there. ...
"Sheray had been having a good day. He's one of our better free-throw shooters."
LSU Coach John Brady, whose team improved to 20-7 overall and a SEC-best 12-2, saluted Lazare's defense: Bellied up to Thomas with hands held high.
"He tried to throw a few shot fakes and I wanted to be smart and not get off my feet," Lazare said. "And I was able to do that."
Smith lamented Moss' foul on Mitchell.
"We fouled when all we had to do was contain, maybe ... ," the UK coach said. "That was a big, big play. You've just got to play smart. It's a tie game. Make them have to shoot over you. Don't put them on the foul line.
"I really thought we handled things the right way (throughout a gut-check of a game). If we were a little more disciplined and play without fouling, we'd have a chance."
Moss said he didn't.
"I just felt I was all ball," he said. "I didn't feel any hand. ... I didn't think it was a good call. I think I got hosed on several calls."
The shaky finish contrasted with a relatively uplifting UK performance. The Cats shook off a monster start by Davis (11 of LSU's first 12 points), took a 37-32 halftime lead, then overcome a rash of turnovers to get in position to win.
Most painfully, the basketball gods seemed on Kentucky's side. Freshman Tyrus Thomas, LSU's shot-blocking wunderkind, turned an ankle late in the first half and contributed only one rebound to the second half. Mitchell's fourth foul with 8:32 left opened the door.
UK fought hard. Trailing 60-56 inside the final three minutes, Rajon Rondo made his first three-pointer in two weeks. A steal of LSU's inbounds pass set up the clutch shot.
Three times down the stretch, Kentucky answered LSU scores with baskets.
But down the stretch, LSU, the team that lost six games by a total of 16 points, made the plays.