NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky's first game against LSU became, literally, a knock-down, drag-out (OK, to be precise, knock-down, order-out) affair which took the largest toll on freshman star Anthony Davis.
When asked Thursday about that game producing a label of being physical, if not borderline dangerous, LSU players lowered their gaze and smiled.
"We are a tough team," freshman strongman Johnny O'Bryant said after LSU beat Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Tournament's first round. "We are a very tough team."
LSU players acknowledged that Malcolm White went too far when he came from behind and flung down Davis in a blowout loss to Kentucky on Jan. 28. The referees ejected White, who then served a one-game suspension
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White, a senior forward not known for overly aggressive play, sent a letter of apology to Davis and UK Coach John Calipari a few days later. He expressed his regrets to reporters on Wednesday and again Thursday.
"That will haunt me the rest of my life," said White, who was suspended for the next game by LSU Coach Trent Johnson.
White noted his relief when Davis, who became SEC Player of the Year, got up. "When I was sitting on the bench, I was worried," White said. "He's a tough kid."
Calipari accepted White's apology, and explained why Thursday.
"Everything is good," the UK coach said. "Just go out and play basketball, and I think that's what we'll do. We're fine."
Calipari excused the play as an act of frustration in the heat of competition and/or the product of misplaced zeal to beat Kentucky. "It looked awful," Calipari said. "I don't think the kid has any ill will toward us or Anthony."
Calipari likened White's action to Vandy forward Steve Tchiengang, who gave UK point guard Marquis Teague a shove in the teams' game in Nashville.
"People playing us, they're reaching down to beat us," the UK coach said. "They grab for something extra in their body to try to beat us. Sometimes that stuff comes out."
Davis and his teammates may need to be tough once more when Kentucky plays LSU on Friday in the quarterfinals.
"We just play a physical game," O'Bryant said. "We'll do the same thing (Friday)."
LSU players feel an obligation to continue a tradition of physical play established by such former Tigers as Shaquille O'Neal, Stromile Swift and Ricky Blanton, White said. Blanton was the 6-foot-6 center who, uh, crowded UK All-American Kenny Walker in LSU's Elite Eight upset of the Cats in 1986.
"LSU's going to be tough, even in football," White said. "... That's something we have to carry with us, and be ready to fight."
Presumably, he did not mean that literally. To hear LSU players, UK should not expect Davis or any of his teammates to be flagrantly leveled.
"One play is not symbolic of our team," 7-footer Justin Hamilton said.
LSU credited the simple basketball virtues of hard play and tough-mindedness for the 70-54 victory over Arkansas on Thursday.
Johnson noted establishing a post presence with O'Bryant, whose 18 points and 11 rebounds marked his second career double-double.
"He was a beast," Calipari said. "He was as good as any big guy I watched all day. Going after balls. Scoring around the basket. Playing with a smile on his face."
Johnson also noted LSU's improved defense in the second half against Arkansas. After halftime, LSU limited the Razorbacks to 35 percent shooting and 0-for-6 accuracy from three-point range.
"I thought we let our defense dictate," Johnson said, approvingly.
After coming to the SEC Tournament on a three-game losing streak, LSU felt good about beating Arkansas. Johnson boiled it down to the essentials.
"I'm so big on just competing," he said. "... That's just the bottom line. And that's what's really special about this group we're going to play (Friday). They compete like the living dickens."
Calipari spoke of LSU doing likewise, probably by living up to the label of tough and physical.
"One of their advantages is they can try to physically bump us a little bit," the UK coach said. "But we've seen a lot of that. As long as it's not fouls, we're fine."