It seems only fitting that Kentucky’s basketball postseason will start with Louisiana State.
In many ways, it was the Tigers that helped No. 13 UK restart its season Feb. 7.
That game against LSU was the beginning of a six-game win streak that the Cats carry into the Southeastern Conference Tournament this week in Jacksonville, Fla.
But that game also was a wake-up call UK desperately needed to change its ways. Sure, UK topped the Tigers 70-58, but the Cats nearly let a 25-point lead slip away at home because of carelessness and a lack of hustle.
“The fourth quarter of LSU, we weren’t a happy locker room,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They knew I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t rant and rave. ... They knew I was fed up with the lack of focus and intensity and effort.”
He didn’t scream and yell. Instead, the head coach left the players alone for two days.
That’s when senior Janee Thompson took over.
The guard asked the UK video coordinator to help her set up clips of the Cats’ worst performances, times when effort wasn’t there or focus seemed off.
Then she bought some BW3s, and the players met to watch the horror flicks together.
“It was rough, and sometimes you’re cringing watching plays where you’re not playing hard, but it’s good to see,” Thompson said.
When you’re playing and the coaches say you’re not playing hard enough, it’s hard to understand that, she said.
On video, it’s crystal clear.
“It’s good to learn from certain game situations that we can watch on film,” Thompson said. “When we have big leads and we let down and let teams back in the game. That’s not something we can do against really good teams.”
There was no finger-pointing, no name calling.
“We’ve got to get serious and start putting teams away,” guard Makayla Epps said, recalling the meeting’s message. “We can’t keep playing around. So during the bye week, we put in a lot of work. We spent a lot of time talking about what we want as a team.”
It was a bonding moment, Epps said. The junior reminded teammates that these were the final few games of Thompson’s college career and that they owed it to her — and to one another — to find a way to play better.
“We’re all on the same page now; we’ve all got the same goal,” Epps said. “We want to be really good. We want to go to a Final Four and do something that hasn’t been done here before. I feel like we can do that.”
There was a point before that LSU game when the Cats had lost five of seven games and struggled so much that Mitchell remembered wondering how the end of the season was going to go.
“We were staring a tough schedule in the face: six games,” he said. “There were thoughts crossing my mind: Could we get in the NCAA Tournament?”
Those six games included three against ranked opponents, and two of them were on the road. Another road game was against a Vandy team that had upset UK in Memorial Coliseum.
Teams that struggle always seem to fall back on “players only” meetings, but they rarely generate change.
Not this time, Mitchell said.
“That was one of those players-only meetings that actually work,” he said Tuesday. “You know, you hear it all the time that players are getting together and meeting, and we have had it here in the past. I think the fact that I didn’t know they were meeting was why it worked. It was genuine and it was between them.”
Since that meeting, UK has won five straight games by an average of 15.2 points while outrebounding opponents by 10.2.
The Cats haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been a team, their coach said.
“It’s about as much fun as you can have coaching when you’ve got a group of people who really want to play for each other and work hard for each other and meet challenges together,” Mitchell said.
That next challenges will be big ones: first beating LSU (10-20) on Thursday and then potential rematches with No. 25 Florida in the quarterfinals and No. 3 South Carolina in the semifinals.
The two teams will have fresher legs and have combined to hand UK three of its six losses this season.
Maybe Kentucky won’t win those games, but it won’t be because of a lack of focus or effort, the players said.
“We’re a team right now,” Epps said, “and that’s a really good feeling going into the SEC and NCAA tournaments.”
No. 13 Kentucky vs. LSU
What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals
Where: Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 21-6, LSU 10-20
Series: LSU leads 32-13
Last meeting: Kentucky won 70-58 on Feb. 7 in Lexington.
UK’s probable starters
Reserves: 2-Ivana Jakubcova, C, 6-6, Sr.; 24-Taylor Murray, G, 5-6, Fr.; 35-Alexis Jennings, F/C, 6-2, So.; 45-Alyssa Rice, C, 6-3, So.
LSU’s probable starters
Reserves: 1-Jenna Deemer, G, 5-7, So.; 3-Akilah Bethel, F, 6-0, Sr.; 10-Jasmine Rhodes, G, 5-10, Jr.; 23-Kayla Lee, F, 5-9, Fr.; 24-Amber Jones, G, 5-6, Jr.; 32-Constance Quinn, G, 5-5, Jr.; 35-Alliyah Farea, C/F, 6-3, So.; 42-Ashley Humbles, F, 5-8, Jr.