LSU broke out the gold kit Wednesday night, the vibrant uniform that ties a thread back to the days of glory for Tigers basketball, the days of Shaquille O’Neal swatting balls into the portals and Chris Jackson leaning in for a 3-pointer — and drawing the foul.
Don’t know if the Tigers are as good as gold yet under first-year coach Will Wade, but this chilly January evening against Kentucky, LSU basketball once again captivated the attention of Tiger fans as their team took another step on the road back to college basketball relevance.
Not every seat in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center was full, but it was close, the crowd of 11,952 easily the best since (dare I mention his name?) the Ben Simmons Experiment. They came to see a show, and a potential upset, and that’s exactly what they got.
Kentucky is Kentucky, and as the all-time power in Southeastern Conference basketball the Wildcats get everyone’s best shot every time they take the court. At 11-2 and ranked No. 17 coming in this isn’t vintage Kentucky, but as always the Cats are long and deep and talented. If you beat them, the college basketball world takes notice.
“If you lose close,” LSU center Duop Reath said morosely, “it doesn’t matter.”
Actually, when you’re coming from a 10-21 season last year, even when you almost knock Kentucky off as LSU did before falling 74-71, it’s sure to raise a few eyebrows.
The 6-foot-11 senior from Australia is clearly improved this season. But some still expected him to be the weak link in the Tigers’ chain, especially when they left non-conference play and turned into the headwinds of the Southeastern Conference schedule.
But Reath was a rock for LSU, especially in the first half. Tossing in hook shots and pulling down rebounds, he went to the halftime locker room with 13 points and six boards, a big reason the Tigers led 36-31 (Reath finished with 24 and 11). Tremont Waters chipped in 18 points and 11 rebounds as well, demonstrating some more of the off-the-glass artistry that has marked his freshman season.
“He played great,” Waters said of Reath. “He dunked almost everything. That’s the start of being that gritty team that coach talks about.”
When Reath dropped in another basket after LSU inbounded to start the second half, the Tigers had their biggest lead at 38-31. But to figure the Wildcats were simply going to melt away was foolish.
The shots started to refuse to fall for LSU — Reath had a ball that defied gravity as it stubbornly rolled across the rim – and Kentucky started to pound the ball into the low blocks for point-blank buckets. By the 11:00 mark, a 25-14 Kentucky surge had turned that early second-half seven-point LSU lead into a 56-52 deficit.
“They figured out what was going on, put their heads down and drove to the rim,” Wade said.
LSU wouldn’t fold, though. Reath shook Deaf Dome as he faked a pass and buried a 3-pointer from the left wing for a 65-64 LSU lead with 3:29 left.
The lead was short lived. Kentucky’s P.J. Washington had just four points in the first half but he poured in 14 in the second. In the end it was too many good looks around the basket for the Wildcats and too many empty possessions for LSU, which dropped to 9-4.
“Against a team like Kentucky you’ve got to be locked in for 40 minutes,” Wade said. “We had some lapses. Certainly at the end of the game we didn’t execute as well as we needed. That’s my job.”
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Still, LSU had a great look at a tying 3-pointer from Brandon Sampson at the buzzer, but like many of the Tigers’ second-half shots it skipped off the rim.
“Give LSU credit now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They’ve played well all year. They shot the ball well all year. Their big boy (Reath) really hurt us.
“They’re going to beat people. I’m just glad we don’t have to play them again.”
From a long-term view, LSU is on the mend as a basketball program, and even a moral victory against Kentucky will help advance the cause. The reality going in was always that this could turn into a slog for the Tigers very quickly, as their schedule takes them to nationally ranked Texas A&M and Arkansas before returning home to take on a recently ranked Alabama team.
But it was at least a sign that LSU basketball has some life, and that the golden days may not be that far away.