UK Men's Basketball

Skal keeps the faith, UK defeats LSU to keep share of SEC title

Intervention — divine and earth-bound — lifted Skal Labissiere out of the valley of the shadow. His personal revival continued Saturday in Kentucky’s 94-77 victory over LSU.

Earlier this season, as Labissiere came to epitomize the over-hyped recruit, he sought comfort in prayer.

“Just for my faith to get stronger,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been down a lot. At the end of the day, I needed the strength to get back up. And that’s what I asked God for.”

Then, Kentucky’s loss at Vanderbilt last weekend evoked the adage of God helping those who helped themselves. UK’s centers and forwards didn’t do “anything” in that game, as Coach John Calipari said. For Labissiere, that was no points and one rebound.

Calipari called a meeting with the big men. Assistants Kenny Payne and Tony Barbee also spoke.

“We talked about getting our ‘bigs’ more involved and helping the team,” Labissiere said. “Because the guards can’t do it on their own.”

UK’s Three Tenors — Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe — got help at Florida earlier last week. Then, the victory over LSU strengthened the perception that this Kentucky team might be peaking as it enters the postseason.

As at Florida, the “bigs” contributed a lot.

Labissiere scored 18 points, his highest total since getting 26 against New Jersey Institute of Technology on Nov. 14. He also had career highs in rebounds (nine) and blocks (six).

“Here’s a kid that’s taken a lot of grief and goes for 18 and nine and six blocks,” Calipari said. “Like he looked really good in that game.”

Marcus Lee scored 12 points, his highest total since getting 13 against Ole Miss on Jan. 2. He grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds.

LSU Coach Johnny Jones called attention to the rebounding. UK’s 45-29 advantage was in stark contrast to the 46-32 beating the Cats took in losing in Baton Rouge in January.

“Today, they were the aggressor,” Jones said, “and did a great job of getting second-chance opportunities.”

With the victory, Kentucky gained a share of its 47th Southeastern Conference regular-season championship, while Ulis made a strong case that he should be Player of the Year.

Ulis handed out a career-high 14 assists, while scoring 14 points.

Perhaps Ulis’ chief competition for Player of the Year, LSU’s star freshman Ben Simmons had a busy game with 17 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and a career-high seven steals.

Simmons acknowledged the difference in Kentucky’s big men. “They played a lot better,” he said.

Of Labissiere, who was originally considered his chief competition in being the first player taken in the 2016 NBA Draft, Simmons said, “He looked a lot better. Not worrying about anything going on.”

UK, 23-8 overall and 13-5 in the SEC, tied Texas A&M for first place. The Cats will be the No. 2 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament. Texas A&M, which beat Vanderbilt earlier Saturday, will be the No. 1 seed by virtue of its overtime victory over the Cats on Feb. 20.

LSU, which lost for the 10th time in 13 games away from Baton Rouge, fell to 18-13 overall and 11-7 in the SEC.

Kentucky’s newfound depth of productive “bigs” came in handy as foul trouble helped limit Murray to one shot and five points in the first half.

Yet, Kentucky led 41-32 at the break. With UK down 21-20, Ulis contributed to every basket in a 10-0 run that enabled the Cats to take the lead for good. He made a pull-up, and assisted on three Lee dunks and a mid-range jumper by Labissiere.

“This team can be great with the way our backcourt has been playing all year,” Ulis said, “and these (big) guys stepping up, now.

“Me being a guy who likes to pass, I don’t have to shoot as much. I can get in the lane and make things happen and read the defenses more.”

Kentucky extended its lead to as much as 16 points early in the second half.

A Murray three-pointer with 16:20 left put the Cats ahead 51-47. That was only his second basket.

On the next possession, Ulis fed Alex Poythress for a dunk. That was Ulis’ 10th assist. With 15:47 left, the Rupp record for assists (16 by John Wall against Hartford on Dec. 29, 2009) seemed reachable.

Ulis and Labissiere collaborated more than once on pick-and-pop maneuvers that freed the freshman for mid-range jumpers.

Labissiere also scored on a pretty post move from the baseline. Ulis said the pair stuck with the pick-and-pops for a simple reason: Why change what was working?

Each basket brought a hearty cheer from the Rupp faithful.

Of the never-ceasing fan support this season, Labissiere said, “I sensed it. That just gave me more confidence.”

Those cheers sustained him.

“When things weren’t going my way, I had to hang in there,” Labissiere said. “Keep working and keep my faith. That’s basically what I did.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

No. 22 KENTUCKY 94, LSU 77

LSU

Min

FG-A

FT-A

R

A

F

PT

Simmons

40

5-12

7-11

11

4

3

17

Victor II

22

3-6

1-2

3

0

2

7

Blakeney

40

7-14

4-4

4

0

1

19

Patterson

20

2-3

0-0

0

0

3

6

Quarterman

34

9-16

3-3

4

3

2

23

Sampson

9

0-2

0-0

1

1

0

0

Gray

17

1-4

0-0

3

1

2

2

Bridgewater

6

1-2

1-1

0

0

0

3

Epps

6

0-2

0-0

0

0

1

0

Malone

6

0-1

0-0

1

0

3

0

Totals

200

28-62

16-21

29

9

17

77

Percentages: FG .452, FT .762.

Three-point goals: 5-20, .250 (Patterson 2-3, Quarterman 2-6, Blakeney 1-6, Gray 0-1, Epps 0-2, Sampson 0-2).

Team rebounds: 2.

Blocked shots: 3 (Quarterman, Blakeney, Patterson).

Turnovers: 12 (Simmons 6, Quarterman 5, Patterson).

Steals: 8 (Simmons 7, Bridgewater).

Technical fouls: Quarterman.

KENTUCKY

Min

FG-A

FT-A

R

A

F

PT

Labissiere

25

8-10

2-3

9

2

1

18

Poythress

19

6-7

0-0

3

1

4

12

Ulis

38

5-16

3-4

5

14

1

14

Briscoe

33

4-14

0-0

6

3

2

8

Murray

32

6-12

6-7

7

4

4

22

Lee

21

6-7

0-3

10

0

3

12

Matthews

2

0-0

0-0

0

0

0

0

Mulder

2

0-0

0-0

0

0

0

0

Humphries

1

1-1

0-0

0

0

0

2

Hawkins

13

0-1

0-0

2

2

0

0

Willis

14

2-4

0-0

1

0

1

6

Totals

200

38-72

11-17

45

26

16

94

Percentages: FG .528, FT .647.

Three-point goals: 7-18, .389 (Murray 4-8, Willis 2-4, Ulis 1-5, Hawkins 0-1).

Team Rebounds: 2.

Blocked Shots: 6 (Labissiere 6).

Turnovers: 11 (Labissiere 2, Briscoe 2, Lee 2, Murray 2, Hawkins, Poythress, Ulis).

Steals: 3 (Briscoe 2, Poythress).

LSU

32

45

77

Kentucky

41

53

94

A—24,414. Officials—Tony Greene, Joe Lindsay, Terry Moore.

Next game

SEC Tournament: Kentucky vs. Mississippi or Alabama

7 p.m. Friday in Nashville (SEC Network)

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