A second consecutive horrid start isn’t what ultimately doomed LSU's women's basketball team Thursday against No. 16 Kentucky. This time there was heartbreak at the end.
After rallying from a 16-point deficit, the Lady Tigers watched the visitors’ Keke McKinney nail a 3-point shot from the left corner with 19 seconds left to break a tie and lift the Wildcats to a 64-60 victory at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU (11-6, 2-3 in SEC) had taken its only lead of the game on a layup by Ayana Mitchell with 5:07 left. The game was tied at 60 when Kentucky called timeout with 37.5 seconds left and possession.
The Lady Tigers did a good job denying the ball to Maci Morris, who led Kentucky with 20 points, but McKinney, a 25.8-percent 3-point shooter, got open and hit the shot with three seconds left on the shot clock.
LSU called timeout but failed to get a good look to tie the game. Mercedes Brooks drove inside, but her shot hit the bottom of the backboard and Mitchell fouled McKinney on the rebound. McKinney hit the first of two free throws with 8.2 seconds left to all but assure the victory.
“We wanted a quick two and hopefully allow us to get a quick foul or 5-second call,” LSU coach Nikki Fargas said. “I thought that was a jump ball with Mitchell, a quick whistle going the other way. We wanted to try to at least attack the basket and get Mitchell on the slip. We didn’t make the play out of it. This game is definitely about players making plays down the stretch. We weren’t able to do so.”
The loss spoiled career-high scoring games by Faustine Aifuwa and Jaelyn Richard-Harris. Aifuwa had 19 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal coming off an 0-for-6 shooting effort in 13 minutes during a loss to South Carolina on Sunday.
“I had an off game and felt I had let my team down last time,” Aifuwa said. “I knew I had to step up and produce and be whatever they needed me to be.”
Richard-Harris had 16 points, four assists and four steals. She shot her team back into contention with three consecutive 3-point baskets that pulled LSU within seven points, 21-14, at the end of the first quarter. Mitchell overcame a rough first half to finish with 14 points and 10 rebounds for her ninth double-double and 19th of her career.
LSU missed a good opportunity in the loss to the Wildcats (16-3, 3-2), who were without two starters, freshman and leading scorer Rhyne Howard and senior point guard Taylor Murray. That pair started the day averaging 29.2 points combined but more importantly, they fuel the Kentucky full-court press. Kentucky didn’t press at all, falling back into a 2-3 zone most of the night and LSU still committed 21 turnovers.
LSU’s free-throw shooting woes also continued with the Tigers missing 10 of 17 tries. Starting point guard and second-leading scorer Khayla Pointer missed the only two shots she took as foul trouble and a shoulder injury limited her to 18 minutes. LSU made only two of its first 12 shots in falling behind quickly.
“We are making the same mistakes we made previously in other losses,” said Fargas, whose team trailed South Carolina by 18 after one quarter Sunday. “The first four minutes we are digging ourselves a hole and giving up way too many points. Twenty-one tonight and 29 against South Carolina. Our starters are not giving us off to a great start. We’re having to fight and claw our way back.
“This team has got to really value the mental part of the game, and you’ve got to play smart down the stretch. When we came back and got the lead, it was because we were playing together. We took some ill-advised shots. Mitchell and Faustine were highlighted and we said we’ve got to get them touches. Our guard play has got to improve. We have to be better passers and want and willingly give those bigs their looks.”
Kentucky, which hit seven of its first nine shots, got 10 points from Jaida Roper and overcame a 35-26 rebounding deficit.
“I was proud of our team coming out with great energy and focus and getting the big lead,” Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We are so banged up, and not just the two who weren’t playing.
“(McKinney’s shot) was a beautiful play; she really stepped into it. “They were not going to let Maci Morris touch the ball.”