John Clay

Cats' fate to be decided in Florida

Bottom line, two teams going in opposite directions.

LSU is the best basketball team in the SEC. Saturday made it official. The Tigers won their 13th straight league game by beating UK 73-70 in Rupp Arena when Trent Johnson's veteran club scaled a 10-point second-half deficit and Tasmin Mitchell bagged the game's biggest shot with 9.8 seconds left.

Kentucky, well, it's the team that squandered that 56-46 advantage with 9:51 remaining.

Kentucky is the team that didn't switch as instructed on Mitchell's game-winning dagger and got off a contested Jodie Meeks' airball at the other end with less than two seconds left.

Kentucky is the team that is now 8-6 in the SEC, that has lost six of its last nine.

Real question: Does that make Kentucky an NCAA Tournament team?

Answer: Not right now.

First, let's give what's due. Patrick Patterson scored 28. Jodie Meeks scored 24. The Cats were not the deer-in-the-headlights team of Wednesday when Billy Gillispie's club didn't come close to matching South Carolina's intensity.

Down 36-28 at the half, Gillispie, the coach who gets criticized for not making adjustments, made an adjustment. Kevin Galloway and Darius Miller started the second half. UK zoomed to a 54-44 lead with 11:03 remaining.

The lead dwindled from there, and afterward Gillispie said, "I made a critical, critical, critical substitution in that time when we had a 10-point lead and played the wrong guy."

No one knew for sure exactly what the coach was talking about. Did he mean losing the 10-point lead, or losing the game at the end? And who was the wrong guy? Was he taking the blame on himself, or throwing "the wrong guy" under the bus. Asked again, Gillispie only repeated a variation of the same theme.

Same thing on Mitchell's winning shot. Gillispie said the Cats didn't switch on the high-ball screen as they were told to do.

A.J. Stewart, the player who quit on Wednesday night and was back on the team by Friday, was guarding Mitchell. Kevin Galloway was guarding Marcus Thornton, who had scored 19 points in the second half.

A screen was set, only Galloway didn't switch. Both ended up guarding Thornton, leaving Mitchell open. You know the rest.

"I think I just blanked out," said Galloway, taking the blame later, "and I just zoned out and blanked out and was trying to stop my man from scoring."

Here's the thing: There was no confusion on the LSU side. Didn't matter that the Tigers were down 10 points with nine minutes to go. That was when Thornton took over the game.

And in the end, it didn't matter if it was Thornton or Mitchell who took the last shot. Riding on experience and confidence and the moxie that comes with a 12-1 league record, chances are either one was going to make the big shot on the big occasion.

"It's just shut your mouth, Coach, and get out of the way," said Johnson. "That's what that is."

The mouths won't be shut around here, of course, even if the Cats were far more competitive than three days before, even if they lost a heartbreaker to the nation's 18th-ranked team.

Kentucky is now 19-10 overall and 8-6 in the SEC. A win over Georgia on Wednesday won't be enough to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. UK's post-season fate will be decided in the Sunshine State. First there's the regular-season finale against Florida in Gainesville. Then there's the SEC Tournament in Tampa.

"Our backs are a little bit to the wall," said Meeks.

"We need to win the SEC Tournament," said Patterson

That's where this team is now.

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