NCAA Tournament

Terrence Jones gives UK needed lift in SEC tourney opener

Kentucky's Terrence Jones battled against LSU as the Wildcats struggled for leads in a close game. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky's Terrence Jones battled against LSU as the Wildcats struggled for leads in a close game. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

NEW ORLEANS — The Big Easy was anything but for Kentucky in its Southeastern Conference Tournament opening game Friday.

But despite the potentially knockout combination of its own turnover-plagued performance and LSU's competitive zeal, Kentucky prevailed 60-51 in the New Orleans Arena.

Terrence Jones, the hero when the teams played in Baton Rouge, La., in late January, again loomed large. His nine straight points early in the second half gave Kentucky a lead to nurse to the finish line.

"For whatever reason, he likes us," said LSU Coach Trent Johnson, who memorably declared the Cats the regular-season champs if Jones could replicate his 27-point, nine-rebound, three-block performance in Baton Rouge.

A second double-double of the season (15 points, 11 rebounds) in the rematch was close enough.

"If he's going to play like that, they might as well crown 'em now," said Johnson, presumably meaning the SEC Tournament and the Final Four next door in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in three weeks. "Because it's going to take a really, really good basketball team on a good day to beat this group."

LSU (18-13) was a good team on a good day. Intent on making amends for the 74-50 loss to UK on Jan. 28, the Tigers met, if not exceeded, Johnson's back-to-basics request: Compete.

"Guys were pressuring us and we were thinking, 'What are you doing?'" said Anthony Davis, who contributed 12 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks. "We didn't come with the mind set to be strong with the ball."

Kentucky's 18 turnovers were its most since Jan. 3 (19 against Arkansas-Little Rock). UK players used words like "flat," "lackadaisical" and "sluggish" to describe the performance.

To describe LSU's play, UK Coach John Calipari used the word "desperate" as a compliment.

"They were playing out of desperation," he said. "And our players are so young, they didn't understand."

Jones' moment arrived when LSU matched its largest lead of the game, moving ahead 35-30 with 16:51 left. Giving the game a fleur-de-lis touch, Andre Stringer set the margin by stealing the ball from Marquis Teague and driving to a layup.

UK's 11th turnover enabled LSU to take a 12-2 advantage in points off turnovers. As UK called timeout, Johnson sensed Kentucky about to apply the coup de grace.

"I told them, 'Here comes the run,'" the LSU coach said. "And, again, it's hard for people to understand, but that's not a good team. That's a great team. They got great players. So they're going to make a push.

"And they made a push, and they did a good job of taking us out of some of our stuff, offensively. And, so be it."

Jones scored Kentucky's next nine points. He began the one-man 9-0 run by taking a patented Darius Miller lob from the lane and flushing it home.

Less than a minute later, Jones drove by Storm Warren for a dunk. That matchup proved telling as Kentucky (31-1) advanced to a Saturday semifinal game against Florida.

"They couldn't stop him off the dribble," Teague said of Jones. "We wanted to keep getting him the ball until they found an answer to him."

Jones' put-back of a Miller miss put UK ahead for good at 37-35 with 14:18 left. His two free throws at the 12:10 mark widened the lead to four points.

Meanwhile, LSU missed seven straight shots in a scoreless five-minute span.

As a largely dressed-in-blue crowd cheered, Kentucky seemingly passed a baton from hero to hero.

With Davis in first-half foul trouble, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist became the go-to guy in the post.

Then Jones scored Kentucky to a lead.

Davis finished off LSU down the stretch.

But given what happened in Baton Rouge in late January, LSU's inability to keep up with Jones seemed most memorable.

"I love when he's playing that way," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "That's the 'T.J.' I know."

It's the "T.J." LSU knows all too well.

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