LEXINGTON, Ky. — During his Monday news conference, John Calipari made sure to note the LSU basketball team faced a double-digit deficit in four of its previous five games and came back to win three of them.
“They’re not afraid,” Kentucky’s Hall of Fame coach said, admiring the Tigers’ tenacity and resilience.
On Tuesday night, Calipari saw with his own eyes what Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Auburn saw before him.
This LSU team is afraid of nothing.
- Afraid of cavernous Rupp Arena? Nope.
- Afraid of 23,490 blue-clad fans screaming at the top of their lungs? Never.
- Afraid of No. 5 Kentucky, which rolled into Tuesday's game with 10 consecutive wins? Not a chance.
- Afraid of the big moment and an opportunity to get a mammoth win over one of college basketball’s blue bloods? No way.
Put it all together and you had a 73-71 upset for No. 19 LSU, a nine-point underdog that could have folded in the second half when Kentucky built a nine-point lead on four separate occasions.
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“We prepared well and I thought we were going to play well,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “I have great belief in our players, and I didn’t think they would be intimidated.
"They were very confident and they thought they were as good as Kentucky.”
On this night, they were better by a basket, thanks to a game-winning tip-in by Kavell Bigby-Williams at the buzzer.
The 6-foot-11 forward didn’t exactly silence the big crowd, which howled for an offensive goaltending call after he rose above three Kentucky defenders to make the play.
But Bigby-Williams did make the difference late after scoring just three points in the first 39 minutes, 59 seconds of the game.
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In the blink of an eye, he became one of the stars of the game when Skylar Mays’ shot bounced off the glass and off the front of the rim before he tapped it in.
That was proven when Bigby-Williams’ fifth rebound and second basket of the night were worthy of the No. 1 play on ESPN’s "SportsCenter" in what was a signature win for Wade and his program — controversial ending or not.
Considering where his heroics came, it was one of the biggest moments of Bigby-Williams’ basketball career.
“This is definitely right up there, for sure,” he said. “It’s something, considering the Rupp Arena history, that’s going to stay with me for life.”
As for Wade, defeating UL-Lafayette in the NIT was a big one after the back-and-forth leading up to the Tigers’ eight-point victory last March.
But the wild finish at Rupp put LSU on the college basketball map as one of the nation’s top 16 teams and trending upward with the NCAA tournament just five weeks away.
“We’ve got a very, very good team,” Wade said. “We were able to prove that tonight. We’ve grown as the season has gone along, just like Kentucky has. They have an excellent team and we’ve gotten better, and tonight confirmed that for a lot of folks.”
Wade didn’t hesitate when asked where the win ranked in his six-year career as a head coach.
“This one is probably close to the top,” he said, “next to winning an NCAA tournament game.”
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That came in Wade’s first season at VCU in 2016, when his 10th-seeded Rams knocked off Oregon State in an NCAA first-round game.
It wasn’t known if he was as confident before that game as he was before upending Kentucky following two good days of practice.
“We’re going to play well,” Wade said an hour before Tuesday night’s game. “I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but we’re going to play well.”
One of the keys, he said, was being who they are and not worrying about Kentucky’s storied past — especially the recent Cailpari-coached stars like John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns that his players are more familiar with.
“We talked about our team this year playing Kentucky’s team this year … and what a great opportunity we had,” he said. “We weren’t going to run from anything; we were going to run to it. You can’t play scared; you can’t play timid.”
As Calipari told anyone who would listen, they’re definitely not afraid.