The crawfish in the second row of the LSU student section was boiling, like the rest of the Deaf Dome.
Looking like they were outclassed and outgunned down 13 points with just under 13 minutes left, the LSU Tigers mounted a furious 16-0 rally from 60-50 down to 66-60 up on No. 1 Kentucky with 7:29 left.
In those moments the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, sold out and shaking, literally shaking, reclaimed its former glory, with students like the kid in the crawfish garb emitting a lusty, ear-splitting roar. It was like the days of Macklin and Macy, Williams and Walker, when every time LSU and Kentucky met on the court it was for Southeastern Conference supremacy.
This time it wasn’t the top of the SEC standings on the line, just history.
The 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, college basketball’s last undefeated team, which won the NCAA Mideast Regional at the PMAC that season, were watching from the wings with Pelicans and former UK star Anthony Davis to see if the Tigers could stop the unbeaten Wildcats’ relentless quest for an epic 40-0 season.
History, or rather stopping it, was literally in the air. It hung on Keith Hornsby’s off-balance, contested 3-pointer from the left wing with three seconds left, a shot to drive a stake in the Wildcats’ hopes of perfection.
“I had the shot everybody dreams about,” Hornsby said. “It just didn’t fall.”
On line he said, but long, the extra bit of force probably the result of Aaron Harrison sticking a hand in his face as he shot.
Jordan Mickey tried to grab the rebound for a hasty put-back, but Karl-Anthony Towns, who earlier fueled the Tigers’ surge with a rim-hanging technical foul, swatted the ball away. And just like that, Kentucky had swatted away LSU’s upset bid.
The Tigers got close, closer than anyone except perhaps Texas A&M and Ole Miss, who took UK to overtime. In the end, though, LSU will simply go down as victim No. 24.
The Tigers had their chances to alter their fate. After their mega run to go up six, the game teetered for the next four minutes. Kentucky broke LSU’s icy grip on momentum with 6:51 left when Towns — who got a fist-pumping, finger-pointing earful from UK coach John Calipari after his technical — sank a top-of-the-key jumper with :01 left on the shot clock after LSU played 34 seconds of adhesive-like defense.
That’s what the great teams do. They make the clutch shots. They also play defense. After the Tigers went back up 69-66 with 3:52 left on a basket by Mickey, LSU didn’t score again. The Tigers managed just two field-goal attempts in that span, including Hornsby’s try for the winner.
Afterward, LSU’s players and coach tried to sift positives from the debris of defeat.
“It shows how close we are to being a good team,” said point guard Josh Gray, who played a surprising 24 minutes at point guard. For most of the night, the mercurial Gray was golden, scoring seven points and dealing two assists with just one turnover against college basketball’s best defensive team.
Jarell Martin and Mickey fought gamely down low, combining for 35 points and 18 rebounds against the Wildcats’ waves of high school All-Americans. Vastly outnumbered like defenders at the Alamo by Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, when it ended, LSU was outscored only 42-40 in the paint, outrebounded only 40-35, beaten on second-chance points only 17-14.
It was something to be proud of, but asked afterward if he would savor this game as a moral victory, LSU coach Johnny Jones tersely replied, “No.”
That’s wise, because now the larger question is where does LSU go from here. Brave effort against Kentucky duly noted, but the Tigers have lost three of their past four with underwhelming efforts against Mississippi State and Auburn to drop to 17-7 overall and 6-5 in conference play.
As bubbly as a bubble team can be (their RPI was 51 entering the game, likely to rise), every bit of conventional wisdom says the Tigers have to win 11 SEC games to earn an NCAA tournament bid. That means LSU has to win five of its last seven. That means going on the road and getting at least two tough road wins at Tennessee, Texas A&M, Auburn and Arkansas while preserving home-court advantage against Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
If LSU plays like it did against Kentucky, wins in any of those games are possible. But these Tigers have shown they are capable of much, much less than the effort they gave Tuesday night.
In the end, the Tigers are no closer solving the riddle of themselves than they were coming into this game. Tuesday night, they were spell-bindingly entertaining, heroic even, but still an enigma.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.