LSU game a chance for Cats to climb

John Clay
John Clay

TAMPA, Fla. — Thursday, Kentucky grabbed the doorknob.

Friday, the Cats could open the door, at least a crack.

Not throw it wide open to an NCAA Tournament bid, mind you. A win Friday doesn't come remotely close to putting Kentucky in line for a spot in the field of 65, even though it would come over Louisiana State.

But if UK could defeat the regular-season champions in its second-round matchup at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in the St. Petersburg Times Forum, it would add a notable triumph to a résumé in need of a notable triumph and allow the Cats to live to fight another day.

Beating LSU on a neutral floor would have been a far-fetched notion as the Cats dragged a four-game losing streak into post-season play. It still seems unlikely, but at least the Cats exhibited a bit of newfound urgency in beating Mississippi 71-58 in the tournament opener.

With outside speculation spinning all around them, the Cats were more active. Their legs looked fresher. They won the 50-50 balls. They limited Ole Miss to seven offensive rebounds.

They controlled the turnover flow, reducing their miscues to 10 while forcing the Rebels into 18. They scored 23 points off those turnovers, compared with seven for the Rebels. They outscored Mississippi by 15 in the second half.

Here's the telling stat: When Ole Miss dumped the Cats 85-80 in Oxford back in January, Andy Kennedy's Rebels buried 10 of 26 three-pointer shots. Here, in Florida, Ole Miss was 4-for-9 from behind the line in the first half, but 1-for-8 in the second period, 5-for-17 for the game.

"I thought our guys did a great job of helping each other over a 40-minute period," said Billy Gillispie, UK's coach.

Among SEC teams, foes that have made six or more threes against the Cats are 7-3. Opponents making five or less are 1-6.

"I thought they did a good job of handling our baseline screens," Kennedy said. "And I thought (Patrick) Patterson blocked some shots that were really deflating to our kids."

The Cats will need some of those in the second round against LSU. Kentucky shot 53.8 percent the first time the teams played, Feb. 28 in Rupp Arena. They outrebounded LSU by three and were credited with 18 assists compared with 15 turnovers.

Yet they couldn't execute well enough down the stretch, especially on defense, to keep the experienced visitors from exiting Lexington with a thrilling 73-70 win.

"Maybe it was thrilling for them and their fans," said Gillispie on Thursday, "but not for me or our fans."

That victory cemented the regular-season title for Trent Johnson's club, and it was the last game the Bayou Bengals won. They lost at home 75-67 to Vanderbilt, then 69-53 at Auburn.

So the guess here is that LSU has some incentive and will be ready to play. The Tigers want to get back on the track. They don't want to stagger into the NCAAs on a three-game losing streak, a one-and-done victim in their conference tournament.

"We have to earn our respect back," senior guard Garrett Temple told The Advocate of Baton Rouge. "We play well when we try to earn respect, so hopefully we will start playing well again."

Kentucky earned back a bit of respect Friday in beating Ole Miss. It stopped a four-game slide, and it started what the Cats hope is a climb that will progress through Selection Sunday.

LSU was 36th in the RPI after Wednesday night's games. The Cats were 79th. Opportunity knocks.

The Cats now have their hand on the door.

Can they crack it open?