TAMPA, Fla. — Goodbye SEC. Hello NIT?
That scenario loomed large on Friday after Louisiana State beat Kentucky 67-58 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
This second-round game rewarded superiority as LSU, the league's regular-season champion, controlled a UK team clad in funeral black uniforms.
"I thought we played the game exactly the way it needed to be played," UK Coach Billy Gillispie said. "We just have to execute much better."
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LSU, 26-6 and headed to a Saturday semifinal game against Mississippi State, executed a defensive plan surprisingly well.
UK's and the league's leading scorer, Jodie Meeks, failed to reach double-digit points for the first time this season, a span of 32 games. For only the second time this season, Meeks did not make a three-point shot (0-for-3).
Asked how he'd have reacted if told before the game that Meeks would have more turnovers (five) than baskets (three), LSU's ace defender, Garrett Temple, said, "I'd have said, 'That's good. I did my job.' "
Kentucky stayed close with its own defense. LSU made only 39.3 percent of its shots. Its three players with double-digit scoring averages missed 25 of their first 37 shots. But the Tigers simply had too much talent to be denied forever.
With UK hanging around, LSU broke open the game with a flurry of three-pointers inside the final eight minutes. Treys by Temple, Bo Spencer and SEC Player of the Year Marcus Thornton in an 80-second span turned a 49-42 competition into a 58-44 cushion.
"They have a lot of good players who hit some real tough shots," UK freshman Darius Miller said. "We tried our hardest to contest (the shots). That's all we can do."
UK came into the game with a Ratings Percentage Index of No. 73, one spot better than the record for least-impressive RPI number to merit an NCAA Tournament bid. The loss left the Cats 20-13 and contemplating the National Invitation Tournament.
After Ramon Harris scored the game's first basket on a pretty left-handed driving banker, LSU took the lead and never relinquished it.
The Tigers led 28-23 at halftime thanks in large measure to Thornton's 13 first-half points (en route to a game-high 21) and good defense on Kentucky's main scorers.
Hounded by the league's best perimeter defender (Temple), Meeks did not get a shot off until the 7:02 mark. Temple blocked that pull-up jumper in the lane. Meeks didn't score until 6:21 remained in the half.
Temple, two inches taller than Meeks and a cool customer with Final Four experience, described his defensive plan as "chasing him, not letting him get open threes.
"He's real fast. He's probably the fastest guy I ever guarded. I wanted to chase him and make him go to my help."
That worked like a charm to begin the game as Kentucky turned over the ball on four of its first seven trips downcourt. Meeks had three of the turnovers.
LSU cashed in with three transition baskets and two free throws when a foul was called on another fast break. That built a quick eight-point lead and put UK in permanent catch-up mode.
"My teammates did a great job of helping, pinching in (on Meeks' drives)," Temple said. "He wasn't able to get easy shots. We wanted to make each shot difficult."
Meeks, who came into the game averaging 24.7 points, saluted LSU. "Great defense," he said. "When I got past (Temple), the team helped out a lot."
Thornton scored the three transition baskets. Another of his baskets reflected the difference in talent level. He rebounded Spencer's three-point miss and banked in the rebound before gravity returned him to the court.
Meeks didn't wait long to score in the second half. On the Cats' first possession, he hit a driving layup — make that a reverse layup — in which he used the rim to elude Temple.
Kentucky twice got within two points of LSU early in the half. But no closer.
With the LSU lead at 39-36, All-League forward Tasmin Mitchell hit an easy-as-you-please pull-up jumper over Michael Porter.
After Patrick Patterson missed a heavily contested post-up, Thornton cut to a layup. Then LSU stole the ball, setting up Terry Martin's three-pointer that put the Tigers ahead 46-36 with 10:43 left.
A flurry of three-pointers put LSU in charge. The three straight (by Temple, Spencer and Thornton) built a 58-44 lead with less than six minutes.
Sandwiched between the Spencer and Thornton threes was a block from behind by Temple on a Stevenson dunk.
UK called time with 5:48 left to ponder the immediate — and perhaps more distant — future.