Kentucky had won 10 straight games. LSU had won 12 of its last 13.
Except for the controversial ending, Tuesday night’s game in Rupp Arena lived up to that heavyweight billing.
Kevell Bigby-Williams’ tip-in at the buzzer gave LSU a 73-71 victory. Or did it?
Replays suggested the ball was in the cylinder when Bigby-Williams’ touched it. But after a review, the shot was called good.
LSU, which won at Kentucky for only the second time since 1989, moved into sole possession of second place in the Southeastern Conference at 10-1. The Tigers improved to 20-4 overall.
Kentucky fell to 20-4 overall and 9-2 in the SEC.
The dramatic final three minutes began with PJ Washington missing a corner three. LSU took its largest lead when Naz Reid’s putback put UK down 69-64 with 2:13 left.
Fifteen seconds later, Washington got UK within two on an old-fashioned three-point play. After Reid’s three-pointer rattled out, UK called time. The Cats went to — who else? — Washington, who delivered with a baby hook in the lane to tie it at 69-69 with 1:12 left.
Star point guard Tremont Waters made two free throws with 20.5 seconds left to put LSU ahead 71-69.
Kentucky tied it on two Keldon Johnson free throws with six seconds left.
LSU’s Skylar Mays threw up a running banker in the final seconds. Bigby-Williams tipped it in to win it.
Kentucky led 40-32 at halftime. The margin seemed much larger than eight (which marked UK’s largest lead of the first half) given Ashton Hagans’ foul trouble.
Hagans, who began the game guarding Waters, picked up his first foul 18 seconds after the tipoff.
Hagans went to the bench, then re-entered the game at the 13:52 mark. He picked up his second foul with 10:59 left and did not play again.
“He’s just an absolute pest defensively and does a great job blowing up your offense,” LSU Coach Will Wade said of Hagans on Monday. “Blowing up handoffs, blowing up ball screens. He does a phenomenal job with that.”
Without its point guard, Kentucky led at halftime thanks to defense and superiority on the front line.
In the first half, UK outrebounded LSU 23-14 and outscored the Tigers in the paint 20-6.
Reid Travis’ first three-pointer since the North Carolina game on Dec. 22 put Kentucky ahead 29-22 with eight minutes left. Travis had missed all seven three-point attempts in a row.
LSU, which had a history of comebacks this season, went on an 8-0 run to regain the lead.
But Kentucky outscored LSU 11-2 in the last 4:21 of the half. In that span, LSU missed all six of its shots to cap a 9-for-27 half of shooting.
On Monday, Wade did not welcome the prospect of needing to rally again.
“We’re not going to be able to get down 16 points, 14 points like (LSU had done recently),” he said. “We’re not going to be able to get down all of that and just chip our way back against a team like Kentucky.
Another deficit was business as usual for LSU.
“We pretty much always come out and get punched in the mouth, and we try to turn it around,” Waters said after LSU rallied from eight down at halftime at Mississippi State a week ago.
Most miraculous of LSU’s comebacks came at Missouri on Jan. 26. The Tigers trailed by 14 with 2:08 left. NCAA.com calculated that LSU had a 0.3-percent chance of winning. Then LSU went on a 15-1 run sent game into overtime. LSU won 86-80.
Kentucky was no stranger to dramatic changes of momentum. The Cats led Auburn 48-31 with 17:01 left. The lead shrunk to 66-63 with 6:38 left.
At Mississippi State last weekend, UK led 49-31 with 16:32 left. The lead dwindled to 51-50 with 8:41 left.
“If you’re inexperienced, you’ll think one or two plays really don’t matter,” UK Coach John Calipari said on Monday. “So you won’t be focused. You won’t make the easy play. You’ll grab the ball with one hand. … All of a sudden, it’s anybody’s ball game. It started with those two plays you acted like didn’t matter.”
As if on cue, LSU rallied. Even Reid picking up his fourth foul with 13:50 left did not blunt the charge.
UK’s lead slipped to 49-48 on an and-one drive by Mays with 12:32 left.
Storm clouds gathered for Kentucky as Washington picked up his fourth foul with 8:40 left.
A questionable three-point miss by Immanuel Quickley led to a fast-break layup that put LSU ahead 58-56 with 8:14 left. That matched LSU’s largest lead. UK called time to ponder.
The timeout did not help. Travis airballed a three-point shot from the top of the key.
Both teams anted up to the max with 5;06 left. Both Washington and Reid returned with four fouls.
After Herro hit a three-point on a third-shot opportunity to tie it at 62-62, Reid took a pass from Waters and swished a three to put LSU ahead 65-62 with 3:46 left. That set up the dramatic finish.
No. 1 Tennessee at No. 5 Kentucky
8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)