By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Kentucky came to Baton Rouge with the flu. They departed with the win, and left LSU feeling ill in the process.
Duop Reath scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Tremont Waters added 18 points and 11 rebounds, but neither of LSU’s two looks at a game-tying three fell, and the Tigers dropped a tough one to No. 17 Kentucky on Wednesday, 74-71.
LSU (9-4, 0-1 SEC) entered the game shooting 38 percent from 3, but connected on just 6-of-24 attempts from deep, and just 1-of-13 in the second half, a night of shooting as cold as the weather outside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Kentucky overcame a five-point first-half deficit by attacking the paint and the glass, getting 30 of their 46 paint points after the break and securing several key offensive rebounds late.
“We gave up some critical free throw offensive rebounds,” said LSU head coach Will Wade. “We had some critical mistakes where, against a team like Kentucky, you have to play 40 minutes. You have to play a full game. We just had too many lapses.
Kevin Knox led flu-ridden UK with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while PJ Washington scored 18 points through a cough, including 14 after the break. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 18 points, as well, 13 of which came in the second half.
LSU actually had three chances to tie late. The first fell to Aaron Epps, who finished with 13 points, but he missed a three from the corner. He did put back his miss, though, cutting Kentucky’s lead to 72-71 with 23 seconds left.
Gilgeous-Alexander buried his two free throws to stretch the margin back to 3. LSU re-called a play that netted Epps an open 3 in the first half, but it bogged down, forcing Waters into a pump-fake that Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t bite on. He then threw up a prayer that fell short. Brandon Sampson got a look on an inbounds play with 0.8 seconds left after Waters’ miss rolled out of bounds off a Kentucky defender, but it was off the mark, too.
“It was a play call we were supposed to run, but we screwed it up at the end,” Waters said. “They were seven seconds left on the clock, so I just tried to draw a foul at the three-point line. (Wade) told us exactly what to do, we just didn’t execute.”
“At the end of the game, we didn’t execute as well as we needed,” Wade said. “But that’s my job. We weren’t as prepared and didn’t do as good a job as we needed. That’s on me.”
Kentucky jumped out to a 7-0 lead, as LSU struggled to find its mojo on offense. Skylar Mays helped them find it, answering a PJ Washington layup with a stepback 3 to keying a 16-7 LSU run capped off by a high-arcing Tremont Waters layup good for LSU’s first lead, 20-18. LSU entered the break up 36-31 thanks to a nicely designed set,
Waters missed his first two threes and turned it over twice before hitting his first 3 with 14:12 left in the half. He went off from there, finishing the first 20 minutes with 10 points and 5 rebounds. His layup with just over two minutes left in the half put LSU up 33-29.
Duop Reath was the focal point inside for LSU. He, too, missed his first two shots, but scored four straight to get LSU on the board, including a running skyhook from 13 feet. He’d finish the half eclipsing his season averages in points (13), rebounds (6), and blocks (2) in 18 minutes played.
“He was really good,” Wade said of Rath. “I had a good feeling he was going to have a good game. We were fortunate Kentucky didn’t double him a whole lot. I felt like that was a spot where we could have some success, if we could get Wop going early, especially if they played us 1-on-1 down there.”
“He dunked almost everything today,” Waters added. “That’s the start to our team becoming more aggressive and being that gritty team Coach Wade talked about.”
Cold shooting from LSU out of the locker room allowed Kentucky to retake the lead after five minutes. A 1-for-7 Tiger dry spell, coupled with some careless turnovers and excellent play from Gilgeous-Alexander, saw the Cats pull ahead 43-42 with 15 minutes to go, thanks to a nifty southpaw layup from Kentucky’s freshman guard. He spearheaded Kentucky’s second-half rim-attacking ways, slashing through the LSU paint for shot after shot at the rim.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Wade said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “He’s been playing tremendously the last three or four games. He really hurt us in the second half.”
Waters pulled LSU back ahead with a pair of free throws at the 13:08 mark, but seven straight Kentucky makes – six of which were layups or dunks – put the visitors ahead 56-52 on a Washington slam with 11 minutes to go.
The Tigers tightened up on defense, holding the Wildcats to 13 misses on their next 17 shots, to stay attached. A Sampson layup off a Waters feed, an Epps putback slam, and Reath’s three-pointer with 3:30 left put LSU ahead 65-64 heading into the final stretch. Mays grabbed a steal and had a layup to make the lead 3, but couldn’t hit, leading to a Washington three-point play on the other end to restore Kentucky’s advantage.
Reath slammed home a dish from Epps to tie things at 67 under the two-minute mark, but Washington roared back with another layup through contact. He missed the free throw, but Wenyen Gabriel’s rebound set up Gilgeous-Alexander for a layup and a 71-67 lead.
Waters responded with a floater to bring the Wildcat lead back to two, and Gabriel missed one of two free throws to keep LSU within a possession. But all three cracks at game-tying threes drew rim, a cold end to a cold night.
“We had some good looks,” Wade said. “We just didn’t knock them down. Teams like that make you pay. It’s their length. Their length is bothersome. They were taller than us at every spot.”