John Clay

John Clay: Once again, Kentucky basketball finds the road a rough and scary place

Hey, life’s tough on the road.

It’s especially tough when you’re not a tough team.

Ask Kentucky. Twice John Calipari’s young Cats have stepped on the home floor of an opponent. Twice the Cats have been punched in the mouth. UCLA did it last month in Los Angeles. Tuesday night LSU did it in Baton Rouge. Final score: LSU 85, Kentucky 67.

“We weren’t up to the challenge,” Calipari said after the game, and that pretty much summed it up.

The loss dropped Kentucky to 11-3 overall, with all three defeats away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. Yes, Kentucky beat Duke on a neutral floor at the United Center in Chicago, but the Cats lost to Ohio State, also on a neutral floor: at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Hoping to take a step forward, Kentucky was instead a step slow, a step behind the play pretty much all night.

“We took 10 steps back,” said point guard Tyler Ulis, who scored 23 points and dished six assists.

There is that thing about Kentucky being everybody’s Super Bowl, and that was certainly the case Tuesday in Cajun Country. Every seat in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center was filled. There was electricity in the air. Anthony Davis was in the building.

“Everybody wants to beat Kentucky,” said Ben Simmons, LSU’s superstar freshman.

Surely most everyone came to see how the Cats would match up against the LSU star and vice versa, but Simmons wasn’t much of a factor. Not until late, anyway. The rookie played just nine minutes in the first half, yet LSU led 37-27 at the break.

That’s because Tim Quarterman was the factor. The 6-foot-6 junior scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished seven assists. At times he was everywhere, grabbing loose balls, making determined drives, burying a couple of rainbow three-pointers. Doing all the things Kentucky did not do.

When Kentucky cut a 14-point LSU lead to four at 58-54 — much on the back of Jamal Murray’s 17 second-half points — it was Quarterman who launched a high-arcing three that dropped through the net with the shot clock closing in on zero to give the Tigers a 61-54 advantage. It was probably the shot of the game.

“I didn’t make all the right plays,” Quarterman said afterward. “But I made enough plays for us to win.”

Simmons snuffed out any chance of Kentucky staging a last gasp. He scored three straight baskets as part of a 10-0 run that took the home team’s lead to 81-63, and that was that. He finished with a double-double: 14 points and 10 rebounds to go with three assists.

As was the case at UCLA and against Ohio State in Brooklyn, Kentucky just didn’t match the other team’s intensity. That contributed to early foul trouble as all three of UK’s bigs (Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries) picked up two quick fouls in the first half. Truth of the matter? UK’s bigs played small.

By night’s end, Lee and Alex Poythress had fouled out. Poythress scored just four points and grabbed four rebounds. Lee, who had been UK’s most consistent big, could stay on the floor for just five minutes. He had just two rebounds and failed to score. Skal Labissiere didn’t foul out but produced just three points and two rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We had some guys who gave us doughnuts, and we’re not good enough” to survive that, Calipari said.

“We had some guys who didn’t show up,” said Ulis, who was not one of those guys. “They didn’t come to play.”

Just look at the way LSU battered Kentucky on the boards. Effort stat, right? The Tigers came into the game 13th of 14 SEC teams in rebound margin. LSU won the boards 46-32 Tuesday. Craig Victor, a transfer from Arizona, grabbed 12 rebounds. Simmons snatched 10.

“It was us playing another road game against a team that’s fired up,” Murray said. “And we’re not the same right now.”

Not on the road, anyway.

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