Darth Vader, The Hulk and Captain America were parked dead center in the LSU student section Tuesday night.
And they were screaming.
Their Superman didn’t spend a lot of time on the court in the first half, though, saddled with a pair of personal fouls that limited phenom Ben Simmons’ to 9 minutes of play.
But somehow Simmons’ Tigers thrived without him, taking a 14-point lead late in the half that LSU would never surrender, eventually posting an emphatic 85-67 win over No. 9 Kentucky.
That’s because, just as Southeastern Conference play has started, so has LSU’s penchant for playing like a team.
LSU sputtered through the pre-SEC schedule looking more like a collection of individual if brilliant talents, but not a team. But the return of senior guard Keith Hornsby and a big dose of bruising transfer forward Craig Victor, and suddenly the Tigers have victory on their minds. And what a week ago looked like a very improbable 2-0 SEC start in their back pockets.
LSU looked strong in a 90-82 win Saturday at Vanderbilt, a team widely picked to finish second behind Kentucky in the SEC regular-season championship chase. That was the Tigers’ best win to date.
This one was better. So much better.
“I remember being here last year and sitting on the side working out before the game,” said Victor, one of three double-double Tigers (15 points, 12 rebounds). “We just didn’t capitalize last year. We just went in there and played as a team. I’m just proud that we won.”
Clearly this isn’t the Kentucky team that left here last year unbeaten after a last-gasp Hornsby 3-pointer refused to go down. These Wildcats, now 11-3, don’t have the height or the depth they had in 2014-15.
But vanquishing UK is almost always a line on the NCAA tournament résumé for the end of the season. The Wildcats stockpile talent like that Oregon militia stockpiles government grudges. And LSU has been thirsty for quality wins.
It was a quality night in the old Pete Maravich Assembly Center, all right — and on the anniversary of the great Pistol Pete’s death in 1988, no less.
Two years ago, the Deaf Dome was the Ice Dome as LSU upset Kentucky 87-82 despite thousands of fans being unable to get to the game because of super slicked roads. A year ago, the PMAC was packed as the Tigers came oh so close to knocking off the Wildcats before falling 71-69.
This year was something a little different. Yes, the PMAC was still loud and almost steaming despite weather outside that was chillier even than the Wildcats’ first-half shooting (32 percent). But there was no feeling that the crowd sensed LSU needed almost divine intervention to win.
Part of that is Kentucky not being quite as good. Part of that is having Simmons in purple and gold. But the real weapon turned out to be Tim Quarterman.
If Simmons were wearing Kentucky blue or some other powerhouse’s colors, Quarterman would be the most talented man on this LSU team. On this night, while Simmons had trouble finding his depth, it was Quarterman who took over.
Twice in the second half as Kentucky rallied, it was Quarterman who nailed huge 3-pointers to save LSU as the shot clock melted away. Another time he grabbed a backcourt loose ball, spun away from trouble and had the presence of mind to fire a halfcourt pass ahead to Simmons for a dunk that restored LSU’s 10-point halftime lead.
Simmons finished with his trademark double-double: 14 points and 10 rebounds. But it was Quarterman’s show as he poured in 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had seven assists.
“He played hard,” coach Johnny Jones said. “We told him he had to run our team.”
The biggest keys to LSU’s win: defense and rebounding. The Tigers denied the Wildcats penetration time after time, forcing them to settle for long jump shots that they aren’t as adept at making this season.
Still, LSU’s rebounding dominance was almost shocking. LSU outrebounded Kentucky 46-32, dominating a Wildcats team that came in second in the SEC with a plus-7.6 rebounding average. It led to an overwhelming 44-24 edge in paint points for the Tigers.
“The guys competed extremely hard,” Jones said. “The shots (Kentucky) made were tough shots.”
Suddenly an LSU season that was in danger of skidding off the road like someone trying to drive to the LSU-UK game here two years ago has taken on an entirely different color.
The way the Tigers went 7-5 in the pre-SEC slate, they looked like they were staring an 0-3 SEC start in the face with Vandy, Kentucky and Saturday’s game at Florida. Now the Tigers go for 3-0 at Gainesville and a chance to make a huge early-season statement.
Heroes, villains and large green people couldn’t have seen this coming.