LEXINGTON, Ky. — Over the past week, LSU guard Anthony Hickey’s made little effort to conceal his agenda upon landing on native soil and venturing into vaunted Rupp Arena against Kentucky.
Passed over as a recruit, the state’s Mr. Basketball two years ago bluntly declared a victory would satisfy his pride.
Toeing the free-throw line with two seconds left, a pair of free throws for Hickey could have drawn the Tigers within a point — a concurring narrative seemingly outlined. But Hickey watched the trajectory land the ball on the back iron.
Kentucky forward Alex Poythress yanked it down, was fouled and sank two free throws to send LSU to a 75-70 loss Saturday.
And it left Hickey trudging up the visitors tunnel, somberly untucking his jersey after LSU rallied from a 15-point first-half hole and came within a missed Shavon Coleman 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left that would have tied it.
“I put it on my hands,” said Hickey, who finished with 15 points and three steals. “I’ve got big shoulders, and I’ve got to make whatever for my team.”
So it fell to coach Johnny Jones to tease out positives after LSU (10-7, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) sufficiently frayed the nerves of Kentucky (13-6, 4-2) and 24,248 fans packed to the rafters.
“When you have a crowd like this, it’s extremely tough,” Jones said. “Our guys handled it well and really played between the lines, and that’s something we can take away.”
But in the final 30 seconds, execution dogged the Tigers. Trailing 71-68, LSU tried to free Hickey and Stringer for looks behind the 3-point arc, but they were unable to get a clear look at the rim. Instead, Stringer took a quick dribble into the circle and pitched the ball to Coleman in the corner.
“I came off a double, and they pushed me off a little bit,” Stringer said. “I didn’t get a good look at the 3. I saw Shavon out of the corner of my eye.”
A close-out by Poythress forced Coleman to dribble left, rise and launch a 3-pointer that cleared the rim and hit the backboard.
Johnny O’Bryant corralled the board for a putback with 3.9 seconds left, but Kentucky sealed the win with four free throws. Was it the look LSU coveted?
“Absolutely not,” Jones said.
A UK gaffe nearly handed LSU another chance when it appeared the Wildcats had six men on the floor. On the sideline, forward Nerlens Noel started to trot on to check in as a substitute before an inbounds play was triggered in the right corner of the backcourt to Kyle Wiltjer, who was fouled by Coleman.
Yet it appeared that assistant coach John Robic yanked Noel off the floor in time.
“You could have eight on the floor, but before they hand him the ball,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
“Everybody was saying something. I just know that when the ball was handed, we had five guys on the court.”
Jones asked officials for a review but was rebuffed.
That LSU remained in stalking position late was a testament to its fortitude, with Kentucky unable to extend a lead beyond 10 points as Hickey sat for six minutes after picking up his fourth foul with 9:39 left and LSU down 59-52.
Trailing by 11 points, LSU reeled off a 9-1 run over 3:37, pulling within 66-63 after Coleman tipped a lazy Wiltjer cross-court pass and coasted down the right wing to the rim at the 3:17 mark.
“It’s just a couple of lapses really — just key turnovers that give them easy breakout layups,” Noel said. “We just have to stay mentally focused throughout that and not turn the ball over at crucial times like that.
Hickey narrowed the gap to 70-68 on a 3-pointer in front of the LSU bench with a minute left, setting up the tense conclusion. And again, Kentucky nearly reaped a painful dividend from allowing a foe to linger on its home floor.
“We are working on it,” Calipari said. “It’s nice to walk out of here with a win. It would have been an ugly ‘L.’ ... Just like every other game, we are giving people a chance to beat us.”
The possibility didn’t appear distinct early, when the Wildcats popped off a 14-2 run over five minutes, taking a 16-7 lead when guard Ryan Harrow sliced into the lane on a dribble off the left wing for a layup with 13:05 left until halftime And the Wildcats had no issue establishing control in the first half, outscoring LSU 32-14 in the paint, building a plus-6 rebound margin and intimidating O’Bryant early after Noel blocked two hook shots.
Poythress paced UK with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Guard Archie Goodwin added 15 points, and Harrow chipped in 11 for the Wildcats, who shot 51.9 percent.
With two minutes left in the first half, a Harrow layup off a Goodwin steal upped UK’s lead to 40-25, and Kentucky was poised to bury LSU. But O’Bryant splashed in a 3-pointer at the top of the arc and scored on the left block a trip later to help LSU trail 42-31 at halftime.
“After getting a couple shots blocked, coach just told me to go through them,” O’Bryant said. “Play aggressive, go at Noel. He’s smaller than me, so I just had to be aggressive.”
Out of the locker room, the Wildcats extend the lead to 49-37 before LSU answered with a 5-0 spurt. But until the final minutes, LSU failed to get the lead to a single possession or take the lead, flipping the onus to a young Kentucky team to answer.
“If we could have gotten a three-point (or) five-point lead, force them to execute in the halfcourt, it might have been a little bit tougher,” Jones said.
It didn’t happen, and LSU finds itself laying out caveats for its slow start in the SEC.
“They battled,” O’Bryant said. “We tried to rattle them, but they held up.”