LEXINGTON — If this is going to be a Final Four season for Kentucky, coach John Calipari’s team may well look back at Saturday’s thrilling, 77-76, overtime win over the LSU Tigers as the day that kick started the kind of post-season push by the Wildcats that so many expected when Calipari signed a recruiting class called by many as the best ever.
I can’t explain LSU’s so-so 16-10 overall record or 7-7 mark in another subpar Southeastern Conference field. All I know is that in two games with the Wildcats this winter — an 87-82 LSU win over UK on Jan. 28 and then Saturday’s battle — the Tigers have looked like a team that not only belongs in the NCAA Tournament, but will be a tough out if they get there.
Everybody agrees that the Tigers are tough matchup for the Wildcats because of their quick backcourt, headed by outstanding junior Anthony Hickey of Hopkinsville, and a tall, athletic front line led by 6-foot-9, 256-pound junior Johnny O’Bryant III.
Hickey had 20 points, five rebounds, eight assists and just one turnover in 44 minutes Saturday, and Bryant added 20 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes.
Still, it all went for naught when freshman forward Julius Randle of Kentucky hit a putback off a James Young miss with 3.9 seconds left in overtime to lift Kentucky to the victory in a game that was tight throughout.
“That was an NCAA Tournament game,” Calipari said, referring both to the atmosphere at Rupp and the quality of play on both sides. “That’s what it’s going to be like.”
“THAT,’’ a relieved Randle said, ‘’was a basketball game. I don’t know what their record is — I know they’ve lost a couple conference games (they shouldn’t have ...), but they’re a great team, with a lot of talent. And they match up well with us. We knew it was going to be a war. Luckily, we came out with the ‘W.’”
Randle was both humble and thrilled by the outcome, coming on a day when he was largely bottled up by the LSU defense, scoring just eight points. But Randle showed the kind of toughness we haven’t seen much out of these freshmen-dominated Wildcats, finishing with 15 rebounds.
“I was just telling him (Randle) in every huddle, just get offensive rebounds,” Calipari said of his message to Randle. “Quit getting in a mud wrestling match with somebody. Release, and run and get the ball, which is what he did on the last play.”
Randle, to his credit, didn’t take much credit for his game-winner.
“That was the basketball gods,” he said. “I mean, James (Young) was being aggressive like he was the whole game, and he got the ball up on the rim. They had been trying to box me out the whole game, just killing me, and luckily that one fell straight into my hands. What can I say? There were plenty of times we could have put our heads down, and there was one time when we did.”
Randle was referring to the closing seconds in regulation after Andrew Harrison missed a jumper for Kentucky. LSU’s Jarell Martin rebounded, and Andre Stringer of the Tigers was fouled by Aaron Harrison with 20 seconds left and LSU up, 64-63. That sent Martin to the free throw line for two shots.
“I just reminded the guys that the last time we were in an overtime game (Jan. 14 at Arkansas), we lost, and we weren’t going to let that happen this time,” Randle said.
Martin made only one of two free throws to give the Tigers the 65-63 lead, leaving the door open for Kentucky to put the game into OT, which the Wildcats did, thanks to two free throws by Andrew Harrison with 10 seconds left in regulation.
Hickey missed a pressured, 3-point shot at the buzzer that could have won it for the Tigers in regulation.
The Wildcats trailed by as many as three points in overtime. They didn’t get the lead until Young canned two free throws with 23 seconds left to put UK up, 75-74.
Stringer hit a jumper with 12 seconds left to give the Tigers their final lead, 76-75, setting up Randle’s heroics.
“We had a couple of empty possessions on the offensive end, but that’s basketball,” Hickey said. “It all came down to that last play. You’ve got to give credit to Kentucky and Julius Randle on that last play. Big players step up at the end, and that’s what he did.”
Several other Wildcats met the moment as well.
Aaron Harrison had 21 points, four rebounds and two steals. Young poured in 20 points and grabbed four rebounds. He and Aaron did plenty of damage driving into the paint and hitting runners just inside the elbow against an LSU defense that keyed on Kentucky’s big men.
Andrew Harrison was just 3 of 13 shooting from the field but still had a good game, finishing with nine points, six rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots.
Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein had seven points, six rebounds and three blocked shots.
But those numbers don’t show how much the Wildcats have grown in terms of toughness and heart. It’s attributes like those that will determine how far this team is going to go in March.
Few dispute Kentucky’s talent.
“You really choose how you’re going to reaction to situations,” Calipari said. “We’re getting closer ... making strides.
“This is a great confidence builder, knowing that we can win down the stretch,” Andrew Harrison said.