ESPN color commentator Dan Dakich slapped a memorable label on the Kentucky-LSU game Tuesday night. One team was "competing," he said. The other team was "just playing."
Kentucky was the latter as LSU won 87-82.
"We gave (the UK players) a game plan," said assistant coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for Coach John Calipari on the post-game radio show. "We didn't execute. More disappointing, we didn't fight.
"The games we face, it's all about fight. It's not strategy. Not Xs and Os. It's not who's got the better players. It's who will fight. And we didn't come out and fight tonight, and that's very disappointing."
Led by big men Johnny O'Bryant and freshman Jordan Mickey, LSU never trailed. Kentucky fell to 15-5 overall and into third place in the Southeastern Conference. At 5-2 in the league, the Cats trail Florida (6-0), which plays at Mississippi State on Thursday, and Ole Miss (5-1), which plays at Tennessee on Wednesday night.
Freshman Dakari Johnson scored a career-high 15 points and grabbed six rebounds for Kentucky.
But O'Bryant and Mickey got much the better of it around the basket. O'Bryant scored a season-high 29 points, one shy of a career high. Mickey, the SEC's leader in blocks, blocked five shots as the point man in containing Julius Randle to six points and five rebounds.
LSU's 11 blocks were the most by a Kentucky opponent in Calipari's five seasons as coach. The last time an opponent blocked that many UK shots was Feb. 25, 2009, when South Carolina rejected 16.
"They took the fight to us," Payne said, "and we didn't respond. That's just not good enough."
James Young led Kentucky with 23 points.
But LSU, 13-6 overall and 4-3 in the SEC, had the steadier backcourt play. Anthony Hickey, the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, gave the Tigers a floor leader.
Kentucky's presumptive backcourt leaders, twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, displayed shooting as cold as the Baton Rouge area, which was coated by ice from the arrival of Winter Storm Leon earlier in the day. The Harrisons made seven of 20 shots.
An announced crowd of 12,124 in the Maravich Center saw LSU get a victory Coach Johnny Jones had said could grab the attention of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. "If you can knock down someone like (Kentucky), it certainly helps your chances," he said on Monday.
Kentucky's dull performance ended on an odd note. After a flurry of Aaron Harrison three-pointers got UK within 87-82, the Cats failed to foul as LSU dribbled out the final 11 seconds.
"What are you doing?!" Dakich exclaimed.
Kentucky trailed 42-36 at halftime. That marked UK's largest halftime deficit since trailing Michigan State by 12 in Chicago on Nov. 12.
But a six-point halftime deficit seemed something of a triumph given how the Cats did not lead in the first half and once trailed by 16.
In another slow start, Kentucky fell behind 12-2 barely three minutes into the game. UK's deficit grew to 22-6 as LSU made nine of its first 12 shots.
O'Bryant led the way. He made five of his first six shots. In that time, he schooled Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle and then Dakari Johnson.
From the ESPN studio at halftime, analyst Jayson Williams called out Cauley-Stein for shrinking from the physical challenge.
"He got pushed around," Williams said of Cauley-Stein. "He's getting 'beasted.'"
Calipari credited LSU for taking the initiative.
"They came out fighting and we were passive," he told ESPN sideline reporter Shannon Spake. "When you have one team with energy and the other team passive, you're getting killed."
LSU seemed to get happy with the lead and began shooting jumpers rather than continuing to patiently feed O'Bryant the ball. UK's decision to double-team O'Bryant whenever he touched the ball in the low post made patience a must.
O'Bryant finished the half with 15 points, but ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg suggested the LSU strongman should have gotten more chances to score.
"All jump shots (in the second half) should come after he touches the ball," Greenberg said.
Thanks to Young's shooting, Kentucky got into position to rally in the second half. Young made five of his first six shots, including two of three attempts from beyond the arc, to help the Cats get as close as 29-27 later in the first half.
"We're making shots," Calipari said. "But they (the LSU Tigers) were still beating us to every loose ball."
The second half began with more of the same. After LSU made its first two shots to widen the lead to 46-36, Calipari called time with 19:28 left.
It didn't change much as LSU took a 54-43 lead on a Jordan Mickey dunk.
It was about that time that Dakich first summed up the action by saying, "LSU is competing and Kentucky is just playing."
A Young three-pointer got UK within 56-48. But Hickey answered with a three-pointer. He had been 6-for-26 from beyond the arc against SEC opponents going into the game.
After Mickey easily blocked a Jarrod Polson floater, Andre Stringer hit a three-pointer to put LSU ahead 62-48 with less than 13 minutes remaining.