For much of the game, it seemed understandable if Malik Monk or any of his teammates smiled broadly during Kentucky’s game Tuesday night.
But the final eight minutes made a smirk or derisive laughter worse than poor sportsmanship. It would have been embarrassing given an LSU rally.
“We reverted,” Coach John Calipari said of a closer-than-it-could-have-been 92-85 victory over last-place LSU. “I don’t know if we tired or we reverted back.”
With that, Calipari issued the first of several ultimatums he sprinkled into his postgame news conference.
“If we could practice tonight, we’d have gone three hours,” he said. “… Till people were puking. That’s what I would have done. That’s the old days. Can’t do that (now).
“But we will practice three hours tomorrow. I told them if anybody says they can’t go, you won’t make the trip to Alabama. So don’t go.”
Freshman Wenyen Gabriel scored a career-high 23 points to lead Kentucky. He starred in the first 32 minutes, which saw UK expand its lead to 25 points.
“I thought you saw what I wanted,” Calipari said of this portion of the game. “… The biggest thing for us was sharing the ball and creating easy opportunities.”
Monk, who got a scolding after a television camera caught him smiling on the bench late in Saturday’s loss at Florida, added 23 points. De’Aaron Fox chipped in 16 and Isaiah Briscoe 14.
LSU, which lost its 10th straight game, seemed the perfect tonic for a Kentucky team wobbling because of losses in three of its last four games. But the Tigers competed, closing a one-time 25-point second-half deficit to six in the final minute.
Antonio Blakeney led LSU with a season-high 31 points, which was one shy of a career high.
Even with spells of showing its age (or lack thereof), Kentucky never trailed in improving to 19-5 overall and 9-2 in the Southeastern Conference. With South Carolina losing to Alabama in four overtimes, Kentucky moved into a first-place tie with the Gamecocks and Florida.
For LSU, it was same old-same old. The Tigers fell to 9-14 overall and 1-10 in the SEC.
LSU came to Lexington having been outscored by an average of 14.7 points in league play. The Tigers had also been outshot (34.3 percent to 40.1) and outrebounded (36.0-39.5). SEC opponents had made more free throws (190) than LSU had shot (177). Opponents also had more assists (172) than turnovers (122), while LSU had fewer assists (141) than turnovers (146).
A Kentucky victory, which improved Calipari’s record in Rupp Arena to 131-6, was all but certain.
Led by Gabriel’s extraordinary play, Kentucky rolled to a seemingly routine, if not inevitable double-digit halftime lead.
Gabriel scored 16 points, which surpassed his previous career high (15 against UT Martin). He also grabbed seven rebounds, finishing with eight, which put him shy of his third double-digit rebound game of the season.
Rebounding suggested this was a different Kentucky team than the one that got buried (54-29) on the boards at Florida. Led by Gabriel, UK enjoyed a 24-15 rebounding advantage in the first half. The Cats finished with a 40-26 advantage, their largest margin since Jan. 7.
Gabriel got Kentucky off to a good start by scoring 11 of the team’s first 16 points. His three-pointer at the 14:32 mark put UK ahead 14-4.
Anyone looking for an omen could take comfort in a double-digit lead. In Calipari’s eight seasons, UK had a 204-4 record in games it led by 10 or more points. LSU trailed by 10 points for a 13th straight game. Of course, the Tigers had lost their previous nine games, and 11 of the last 12.
Perhaps to generate more energy and intensity, Calipari had the Cats applying more full-court pressure. LSU committed four turnovers before the first television timeout.
Monk showed he had turned the page from the off-night at Florida (four baskets and 11 points). He matched the four baskets with a three-pointer at the 6:20 mark. He surpassed the 11 points with another trey less than a minute later.
It seemed only another subpar defensive effort in the second half could prevent a Kentucky victory. In the last four games, opponents had made 57.9 percent of their shots (70 of 121) and half their three-point attempts (13 of 26).
LSU did not score in the first two-plus minutes of the second half (three misses and a tie-up). Kentucky widened its lead to 48-27.
But another of the lulls that marks this Kentucky team stalled the expected blowout. UK went without a basket for almost three minutes as Calipari made four substitutions.
LSU closed within 53-43 as the crowd grew uneasy watching another round of turnovers (three in five trips downcourt) and questionable shot selection and — perhaps worst of all — LSU players driving all the way to the basket for scores.
Briscoe, who took only one shot in the first half, broke the spell. He made a shot put of a shot, which began his spree of eight straight points.
No. 15 Kentucky at Alabama
1 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)