Wednesday was a busy night for Kentucky. The Kiddie Cats overcame a wave of player illness, erased a halftime deficit and surely disposed of any doubts about their ability to perform under trying circumstances.
Whatever the obstacles, real or imagined, Kentucky needed possession-by-possession poise and resolve to beat LSU 74-71.
It wasn’t easy, which probably made it all the sweeter for a Kentucky team challenged earlier in the week by Coach John Calipari to show its mettle. A surprising drop in The Associated Press poll after two victories last weekend prompted the challenge.
Then LSU doubled down on the challenge, taking advantage of UK’s 11 first-half turnovers to lead 36-31 at intermission. An announced crowd of 11,952, LSU’s largest of the season, cheered.
“The biggest thing is they’ve got to fight,” Calipari said of the consistency that can nullify the Cats’ youthful inconsistency. “It’s hard to fight when you have the flu.”
Hamidou Diallo, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Nick Richards had the flu, Calipari said. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said he had a cold. PJ Washington said, “I’m coughing a little bit. But I’m good.”
Kentucky, 12-2 overall and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference, took the lead for good in a way that showed resolve. LSU tied it at 67-67 when Duop Reath faked out Washington on an up-and-under move and dunked with 1:59 left.
Washington answered at the other end. His ball-fake got Reath out of position, leading to a layup while being fouled. UK sealed it with Wenyen Gabriel and Gilgeous-Alexander making three of four free throws in the final 39 seconds.
“We’re confident in our abilities ... ,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of a victory in UK’s first “true” road game. “We don’t see ourselves as freshmen anymore. We see ourselves as upper classmen. We try to play with that confidence and that swagger.”
The confidence and swagger was more evident in the second half.
Reath, a native of South Sudan (Gabriel’s home country), was a revelation. The senior’s 24 points marked the second-highest scoring game of his career. He also grabbed a season-high 11 rebounds.
“Their big boy, we didn’t have an answer,” Calipari said. “A couple of (UK) guys weren’t up to it. But we couldn’t do that to them.”
LSU’s star freshman guard, Tremont Waters, also had a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. But he missed potential game-tying three-pointer in the final seconds.
Kentucky couldn’t blame its 36-31 halftime deficit to a repeat of the slow start against Georgia on Sunday. Kentucky floored it at LSU, making its first three shots and zipping to a 7-0 lead.
Although Kentucky made half its shots in the first half (14 of 28), the lead did not last. The familiar bugaboo of turnovers helped prevent a first-half knockout. The Cats committed 11 in the first half.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who had three of the first-half turnovers, blamed indecisiveness. “I have to be more decisive and aggressive offensively, and take care of ball better.
“For the overall team, we were laid back and let them attack us. That’s why we had turnovers.”
Although star point guard Tremont Waters had been lionized in pregame talk, Reath was the player LSU rode in the first half. The Tigers went to him in the post on its first two possessions and two more times before the first television timeout.
Reath, who came into the game averaging 7.8 shots, took 11 in the first half and finished the game making 11 of 17 shots.
His putback tied it at 18-18 with 8:59 left. That marked the first time Kentucky did not lead after scoring the game’s first seven points.
Kentucky, which never seemed to get into an offensive rhythm, scored only one basket in the final 2:39 of the half.
A three-pointer by Aaron Epps with 48.2 seconds left set the halftime score. It capped a five-for-11 shooting half for LSU from three-point distance. UK’s last two opponents (Louisville and Georgia) made only five three-point shots in 46 attempts.
“Our main focus was to bang inside and get easy points,” Washington said of UK’s halftime assessment.
Added Gilgeous-Alexander: “We got punched in the mouth in the first half. They were the aggressor, and we just let them attack us.”
Kentucky rallied with its proven formula of drive-drive-drive. Unlike the first half, the drives netted baskets and free throws.
Killeya-Jones shot UK’s first free throws of the game with 17:16 left. He missed both, but perhaps helped set a tone.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s driving layup put Kentucky ahead 43-42 with 15:11 left. That marked the first UK lead since the 6:10 mark of the first half.
“I think we were being smarter with our drives,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of the second half. “And we were just more aggressive.”
Kentucky extended its lead to 60-54 on a sequence that showed renewed effort. Knox scored on a fourth-chance opportunity.
“This team, when they fight, when they battle, we have a chance,” Calipari said of the second-half Cats. “The other team (the first-half Cats), we can’t win in this league.”
No. 17 Kentucky at No. 23 Tennessee
9 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)