By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
The last time Antonio Blakeney visited Rupp Arena, he was a guest of honor, a highly-sought recruit taking in an exhibition game.
The next time Blakeney takes the floor in Lexington, he’ll be nothing of the sort.
Riding a 19.8 point per game hot streak spanning his last seven, Blakeney will join his teammates for a do-or-die bout with No. 22 Kentucky at 1 p.m on Saturday. If the Wildcats (22-8, 12-5 SEC) win, they’ll earn at least a share of the conference title. If LSU wins – and gets help from Vanderbilt, who plays at Texas A&M at 11 – the Tigers could earn a share, as well.
“We definitely can go in there and get a win,” said Blakeney. “We just have to go in there and play together. They’re also going to be looking for revenge.”
LSU (18-12, 11-6 SEC) trounced Kentucky in Baton Rouge in January, taking an 85-67 decision thanks, in no small part, to 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists from Tim Quarterman. The junior point guard has endured a roller-coaster campaign, but hopes to hit his heights again come Saturday.
“It feels like a big game because it’s at Kentucky,” Quarterman said. “I haven’t been in contention for first place in the SEC since I’ve been here. That’s big for our school.”
Without senior guard Keith Hornsby, still sidelined with a re-aggravated sports hernia injury, LSU will lean on Quarterman, its only third-year player, for experience and leadership. But like the rest of his less seasoned teammates, Quarterman has never played in Rupp Arena, missing the game due to injury as a freshman.
Neither has freshman Ben Simmons, but that doesn’t bother him much.
“We’re going there to win,” said Simmons. “We need to prepare and try to eliminate all the distractions.”
LSU enters the game needing a win to keep its at-large hopes alive for the NCAA Tournament. Anything short of a win would almost guarantee that the Tigers’ only road to the dance would be to win next weekend’s SEC Tournament. A win in Rupp, however, would keep LSU’s bubble hopes alive.
It could also hand the program its first SEC regular season championship since 2009, the significance of which isn’t lost on Simmons.
“That would be huge,” Simmons said. “If I was able to bring something like to LSU. That would mean a lot.”
The Tigers don’t control their own title aspirations, however. They’ll need Vanderbilt to beat Texas A&M in College Station, too, to force a four-way tie atop the league. Johnny Jones said he’ll have someone keep an eye on the scoreboard, but he’ll keep himself and his team focused on what they can control.
“I’m sure we’ll probably know the score of that game,” Jones said, “but our focus and attention has to be to play well regardless of what happens in the game prior to us. Our mindset and intentions can’t change.
“We’re going to win.”
Murray vs. Blakeney: Look for two of the Sec’s hottest guards to line up opposite of each other. In round one, Blakeney made Murray work hard for his 21 points. The Canadian sharpshooter is scorching of late, averaging 25.8 points per game in Kentucky’s last eight, including 33 at Vanderbilt last weekend. “He runs off a lot of screens,” said Blakeney. “He’s a quick shooter – will shoot it early in the shot clock. He’s a good player. I’ll be looking forward to guarding him. I hope he guards me as well.”
Ben’s Key: According to Simmons, the win will be determined by one simple factor: desire. “You just have to want it more. I’m going to talk to the guys about that in the locker room. It comes down to who wants it more and who puts all of it out there.”
Rapid Fire: Kentucky has won 36 straight games at home…Murray and point guard Tyler Ulis are the leading scoring tandem in the nation in league games at 40.1 PPG…Forward Derek Willis is expected to return from injury versus the Tigers; he’s a 50 percent 3-point shooter in SEC play…Johnny Jones is 2-4 vs. Kentucky at LSU, but the net score of the six games in 457-454 in UK’s favor…if LSU wins, they’ll enter the SEC Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed…if LSU loses, they’ll be seeded anywhere from third to fifth…the top four seeds get a bye into the quarterfinals