Kentucky may have found a leader in its 74-71 victory at LSU on Wednesday night.
UK Coach John Calipari credited PJ Washington with leading the way to victory. Washington, a freshman forward from Dallas, scored 14 of his 18 points in the decisive second half.
“PJ took on the team in the second half,” Calipari said. “He just basically (said), ‘Let’s go. Pass the ball. Let’s get it to each other.’”
Of course, any coach calls for these qualities from his players. But Calipari noted the importance of a teammate taking this responsibility.
“Somebody on this team has got to step up and be able to tell guys more than me,” Calipari said. “And part of it is passing the ball. Some of it is being engaged. Some of it is being tougher. Some of it is fighting.
“You’re talking about a young team. That’s the kind of stuff (UK needs). It just takes time.”
Kevin Knox scored 16 points, or one more than he had in UK’s two most recent games combined. He made four of 18 shots against Louisville and Georgia last weekend.
At LSU, Knox made his first four shots en route to a 7-for-12 shooting performance. Coincidentally or not, he also posted his second double-double of the season: 16 points and 11 rebounds.
This did not surprise Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“We knew Kevin was going to get back to himself,” he said. “All the greats have slumps, and Kevin is going to be really good.”
Ever the vigilant coach, Calipari pointed out how Knox could have played better. A fumbled rebound in the final seconds that gave LSU a second chance to make a game-tying three-pointer. One-handed rebound attempts. And an old standby: settling for jumpers.
“Why would you settle for jumpers when we’re going inside every time and something good is happening?” Calipari said he told Knox. “Why would you shoot a jumper?”
Calipari suggested Knox answered, “I was open.”
To which, Calipari made the checkmate move. “No kidding,” he said he’d tell Knox. “Because they don’t want you to go inside.
“But that’s a freshman. I was just happy he played (well).”
For a third straight game, Gilgeous-Alexander made clutch plays and big baskets. His 18 points gave him 63 in UK’s last three games. His assist-to-turnover ratio in the last four games is almost 3-to-1: 17 assists, six turnovers.
Against LSU, Gilgeous-Alexander was productive despite battling a cold.
“I have a lot of confidence in Shai,” Washington said. “Because I know he’s going to do the right thing. He can get to the rack and find others. And he can also score.
“We feel a lot of point guards in the country can’t really guard him. We’re going to keep going to him until somebody stops him.”
Although Kentucky outscored LSU 43-35 in the second half, Coach Will Wade suggested that wasn’t the decisive period of the game.
“I thought in the first half, we played really well,” he said. “We should have been up more at halftime. That’s where we lost the game. We didn’t give ourselves enough of a working margin in the first half.”
Kentucky had three assists and 11 turnovers in the first half. LSU made five of 11 three-point shots in the first half.
In the second half, UK had 10 assists and three turnovers. LSU made one of 13 three-point shots.
The odds of Kentucky winning the national championship are holding steady at 12-1, according to the online gambling site Bovada. The odds were 12-1 on Dec. 5.
In odds updated Wednesday, Bovada made Michigan State a 4-1 favorite to win the championship. The Dec. 5 odds on the Spartans winning it were also 4-1.
Duke slipped slightly as the second choice: the current odds being 9-2, slightly longer than the 4-1 on Dec. 5.
Villanova is the third choice at 6-1.
Only three SEC schools had odds of a title at less than 100-1. Florida was 40-1 (significantly longer odds than the 14-1 on Dec. 5). Texas A&M is at 50-1 and Alabama 75-1.
Louisville’s odds lengthened from 40-1 to 75-1.
▪ Former NFL star Jim Taylor attended the game. He played for LSU before starring for the Vince Lombardi-coached Green Bay Packers in the 1960s.
▪ Former LSU coach Dale Brown also attended the game.
▪ Another former LSU coach, John Brady, does color commentary on radio broadcasts of LSU games.
No. 17 Kentucky at No. 23 Tennessee
9 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)