BATON ROUGE, La. — Ninety minutes before tip-off, the line of LSU students stretched more than 250 yards. From Maravich Assembly Center to Mike the Tiger's cage. Longest line former LSU coach Dale Brown said he'd seen in 18 years in Baton Rouge.
Oh yeah, LSU wanted to party.
One problem: No. 1 Kentucky's depth crashed the party, or so it seemed mid-way through the second half. Then, suddenly, a technical foul on Karl-Anthony Towns made him Exhibit A in one of the more memorable looking-like-a-freshman moments in UK history.
Fortunately for Towns, his redemption sparked a — did-that-just-happen? — 71-69 victory. "I'm proud of Karl," UK Coach John Calipari said. "He came back and he grew up. Big rebound. Big steal. Big basket. Won the game."
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But, first, Towns seemed to, if not lose the game, put Kentucky's now 24-game winning streak into serious jeopardy. Only the 25-0 Hagan-Ramsey Cats of 1953-54 have had a better start.
With a cartoon-like 29-7 advantage in bench points, Kentucky seemed in full control with a 60-50 lead with 11:27 left. The fifth of Willie Cauley-Stein's six dunks gave UK that double-digit lead.
Then the game turned dramatically — and in a painfully obvious way — when Towns received a technical foul for hanging on the rim. He held the rim for what seemed like several seconds.
The technical gave LSU a dangerous intangible: hope.
"Inspired them, killed us," Calipari said of the technical foul. "I thought about that time we'd get them because they were playing six guys."
With Towns benched and receiving vociferous, uh, teaching from Calipari, LSU rallied. After Keith Hornsby hit a three, Calipari did a seeming jujitsu move in Towns' direction as if ringing a cash register. Calipari did the same thing when Jarell Martin scored on a putback.
"He's a very creative guy," Towns said when asked about Calipari's gyrations.
Suddenly, it was a game. Jordan Mickey tied it with two free throws at the 9:18 mark. LSU scored 16 straight points.
"I couldn't believe it," Towns said. "But, again, that's a momentum-changer. I can't be doing that. ... I just have to learn from it."
Towns, who incidentally had his fourth double-double (12 points and 13 rebounds), interpreted Calipari's body language as redundant. It repeated "the message I had for myself," he said. "Those points are on me after a mistake like that. That run was on me."
Calipari had another, less obvious, message. He did not call timeout as LSU turned a 60-50 deficit into a 66-60 lead. His assistants advised a timeout.
"No timeouts this time," Calipari said. "They're going to learn their lesson on this. We're not going to lose in March because of plays like that?! For no reason! You're out of your mind."
Calipari couched the technical in the perspective of a lesson learned.
"Now, I doubt ever in his life will he chin up on a basket ever again," he said. "That's why I looked like an idiot on the sideline. Why I even said I hope we lose. 'Watch them: basket-basket-basket.' He sunk in his chair."
Calipari did try to prevent a loss. Seventeen seconds after a television timeout interrupted LSU's run, he called a timeout.
Trailing 66-60, Towns went to work mindful he could be the goat. "No doubt," he said.
A jumper from the top of the key with the shot clock in its final seconds began a Kentucky counter.
His post-up hook put the Cats ahead 70-69 with 1:30 left.
Then after LSU failed to get off a shot, Towns rebounded Andrew Harrison's miss. Devin Booker's free throw cashed in the bonus possession with 14.8 seconds left.
Aaron Harrison, who's made game-winning shots his signature move, prevented Keith Hornsby from that glory by altering his three-point fling from the left corner.
That saved Kentucky from its first defeat, and, on a personal level, saved Towns from what Calipari called a "mean, nasty lesson."
Towns credited Cauley-Stein, a graybeard on this UK team as a junior, for counseling him to move past the costly technical.
"I had to be able to regroup quickly and just be able to perform," Towns said.
Calipari saluted Towns for being able to do just that.
"It showed who he is," the UK coach said of the goat-turned-hero. "He's really a good player."