LEXINGTON, Ky. — In a season of unfulfilled expectations brought on by some tough losses, especially in the past three weeks, frustration has become the norm for the LSU men’s basketball team.
Saturday was another one of those days for LSU, which went into the regular-season finale against No. 22 Kentucky in Rupp Arena with the possibility of being seeded anywhere from first to fifth for the Southeastern Conference tournament next week.
LSU clinched a top-four seed and double bye into Friday’s quarterfinals before it even tipped off after Texas A&M beat Vanderbilt to clinch the top seed and at least a share of the league’s regular-season crown.
But that was as good as it would get for the Tigers on the day.
LSU couldn’t overcome some strong inside play by Kentucky in the final 28 minutes and dropped a 94-77 decision, further damaging the Tigers’ bleak NCAA tournament hopes.
Kentucky (23-8, 13-5) denied LSU (18-13, 11-7) the opportunity to take the tournament’s No. 2 seed with a win, and the Tigers wound up as the No. 4 seed after South Carolina defeated Arkansas later in the day.
LSU likely will have to win three games in three days at the SEC tournament, starting with a quarterfinal game around 2:30 p.m. Friday — against Vanderbilt, Tennessee or Auburn — to get into the NCAA field.
“Everybody is kind of sad and mad because everybody wants to point the finger at each other,” LSU guard Antonio Blakeney said of the mood in the LSU locker room. “So it’s crazy.”
When asked about a perceived lack of leadership, especially with senior guard Keith Hornsby sitting out his fourth game in a row because of a sports hernia injury, Blakeney said it was hurting his team a lot.
“A leader has to lead by example more than leading by his mouth,” he said. “With this team, it’s a lot of leading by talking and not leading by example.”
Coach Johnny Jones said Blakeney’s comments were a sign of frustration and insisted, as he did during the three-game losing streak in February, that his team doesn’t have a chemistry problem.
“When you have setbacks like that, you’re going to have frustration,” he said. “These guys have done a great job all year staying together, and that’s what a family does.
“It’s good that they challenge each other,” he said. “If somebody is pointing at somebody … and we can do that and play at a different level and guys take it the right way, it can certainly help your team.”
It certainly wasn’t there Saturday against an emotionally charged Kentucky team that said goodbye to senior forward Alex Poythress in a ceremony before the game.
After holding Kentucky to 18 points in the first 11½ minutes, LSU fell under an avalanche of points as the Wildcats finished the first half on a 23-13 run to take a 41-32 lead.
Then they overpowered the Tigers 53-45 in the second half — the fourth time in the past five games that LSU gave up at least 50 points after halftime.
After its front line played poorly in an 85-67 blowout loss in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Jan. 5, Kentucky’s bigs took it to LSU on Saturday.
After LSU took a 19-18 lead, Kentucky went on a 10-2 run that was fueled by forwards Skal Labissiere and Marcus Lee with four points each in the paint while being set up by 5-foot-9 point guard Tyler Ulis.
LSU did get the lead back on a bank shot by forward Ben Simmons, but Kentucky outscored the visitors 74-56 the rest of the way.
“We did a much better job initially offensively — sharing the basketball, making extra passes, making plays, making them defend us on the other end — and we were able to score,” Jones said. “As the game played out, they wound up hitting a couple of shots.
“When they did, they went on a little bit of a run, and we didn’t handle that well. We started rushing some shots and taking some early shots, which feeds into how they want to play. They got in the open floor and had some easy scoring opportunities on the other end.”
Kentucky wound up scoring 36 points in the paint with 12 dunks and, in a reversal of the earlier meeting, crushed LSU on the glass 45-29 after being outrebounded by 14 in Baton Rouge.
Guard Jamal Murray had 22 points and seven rebounds; Labissiere, who was almost invisible in the earlier matchup, had 18 points, nine rebounds and six blocks; and Tyler had 14 points and 14 assists.
Poythress and Lee had 12 points each, with Lee adding 10 rebounds.
Labissiere, Lee and Poythress combined to shoot 20-of-24 from the floor. Labissiere was 8-of-10, and Lee and Poythress were both 6-of-7.
“Those guys stepped up and made some huge plays for them,” Jones said. “When you add Ulis and Murray and what they’re capable of doing, they’re a tough team to play if those other guys step up and play that way.”
Tim Quarterman led LSU with 23 points, and Blakeney finished with 19.
Simmons recorded his league-leading 22nd double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. He added seven steals and four assists but also had six turnovers.
Simmons noted his frustration after the game when asked what he was feeling.
“A little annoyed. … I’m frustrated, but I’ve got to look at the other side,” he said. “We have the (SEC) tournament coming up, and we’ve got to focus on that. So I can’t be holding on to this.
“We’ve got to win,” he added. “We’ve got to win every game, so that’s going to be important.”