Saturday, February 14, 2015

Louisiana St. 69 - 71 Kentucky (No. 2,164)

Down through the years, every school in the SEC has developed its own theory of how to deal with Kentucky's basketball program.  Some of them (like Georgia and Auburn) take the position that they just don't care that much about basketball, anyway (unless they have a good team).  Alabama, true to its football heritage, generally relies on a rugged defense.  Florida has a genius coach.  Vandy relies on Memorial Gym.  Tennessee, as we will see next Tuesday, has its own conception of how to compete with the Cats.

But LSU, to its credit, rarely goes in for any sort of gimmick.  The Tigers have their own basketball history -- they've been to the Final Four three times that I can remember -- and they play in a state that produces a lot of great basketball talent.  So LSU, more than almost any other team in the Conference, is willing to just lace 'em up and go head-to-head with UK.

Down through the years, LSU's approach has resulted in a some unbelievably dramatic basketball.  Consider some of the games I've seen between these two, and you'll agree that this is one of the most underrated rivalries in college basketball:

1.  In 1978, UK was on its way to a National Championship -- but the Cats lost 95-94 in overtime at Baton Rouge.

2.  In the last game of the 1980 regular season, Kyle Macy's last-second jump shot beat LSU 76-74 and gave the Cats the SEC crown.

3.  In the last game of the 1981 regular season, UK beat number-2 LSU at Rupp Arena by the score of 73-71, thus preventing the Tigers from becoming the first team ever to go 18-0 in SEC play.

4.  In the 1986 season, UK beat LSU three times -- 54-52 at Baton Rouge, 68-57 at UK, and 61-58 in the SEC Tournament.  But in the Elite Eight, LSU (a number 11 seed!) beat top seed UK 59-57, thus preventing the Cats from meeting Louisville in the Final Four.  At the time, LSU was the lowest seeded team ever to make the Final Four.  (This was the last game Kenny Walker ever played for UK, and to this day it bothers me more than any other game I've ever seen Kentucky lose.)

5.  In 1990, UK was not allowed to be on TV, and was playing a team of previously little-known scrubs in Rick Pitino's first season.  But the Cats stunned an LSU team that featured Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Jackson, beating them 100-95 before a rapturous crowd at Rupp.

6.  In 1994, UK trailed LSU 68-37 in the second half of a game at Baton Rouge, but came back to win 99-95 in one of the greatest games I've ever seen.  (LSU had two players -- Ronnie Henderson and Clarence Ceasar -- who scored over 30 points in this game).

7.  In 1996, UK went to Baton Rouge and played the best game I've ever seen from a Kentucky team -- they scored 86 points in the first half on their way to a 129-97 victory.

In 1997, Pitino's Cats drilled LSU 84-48 in the last of the 51 games that the Cats played against LSU Coach Dale Brown.  (Brown went 18-33 against the Big Blue).  The rivalry faded somewhat after that.  Under divisional play, UK only played LSU once a year, and the coaches who replaced Brown at LSU weren't able to tap into that same mixture of hatred and frenzy that had given so much spark to the UK/LSU games.  For younger fans, the LSU game became just another night in the long SEC schedule.

But divisional play is over now, meaning that the Cats now go to Baton Rouge two out of every three years.  And the current LSU coach, Johnny Jones, has the Tigers playing a fast-paced athletic style that plays to the school's historic strengths.  Last year, the Cats and Tigers played three times, and each game was very different.  LSU won 87-82 at Baton Rouge, then UK squeaked out a 77-76 over time win at Rupp, and then the Cats hammered LSU 85-67 in the quarter-finals of the SEC Tournament -- a dominant win that foreshadowed UK's great run through the NCAA's.

Since that big win in the SEC Tournament, the Cats have lost only twice -- to Florida in the final of the SEC Tournament and to UConn in the final of the NCAA Tournament.  Meanwhile, LSU has put itself very much on the NCAA bubble -- the Tigers were 17-6 overall and 6-4 in SEC play going into Tuesday night's game.  A win over the Big Blue would put LSU a long way toward the Big Dance, although ruining UK's undefeated season would probably mean even more to the typical LSU fan.  So LSU's basketball team enjoyed its first sellout crowd in nine years, as everyone came out to see if the Tigers could pull off the upset.  Les Miles was there.  Anthony Davis was there -- and what a thrill it was to see him again.  And, of course, Dick Vitale was there.  Press reports indicated that LSU had encouraged employers to let their folks leave early for the game -- which started at 6 P.M. Central Time -- and they must have listened, because the Pete Maravich Athletic Center was roaring at tip-off.

LSU traditionally eschews high-falutin' strategies -- the spirit of LSU basketball, at its best, is all about going for broke -- so I wasn't surprised when the Tigers were up 10-2 after only 3 minutes.  I have seen UK teams that would have struggled to overcome such a start, especially in front of such a manic crowd.  But this UK team has a streak of ruthlessness, and the Cats were no doubt happy to finally face an opponent that was determined to play them straight up.  Plus the Cats had Trey Lyles back in the lineup.  Soon UK and LSU were rolling up and down the Court in some of the most exciting action I've seen all year.  It was like watching two prize fighters throw haymakers at each other.  The Cats led 38-34 at the half, and then started the second half on a 20-11 run that featured some of the best basketball I've seen from UK all year.  Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein were simply killing LSU on the inside, and when Andrew Harrison hit a three-pointer to put UK up 58-45 with 12:46 left, even my pessimistic soul -- which is still haunted by the ghost of Rudy Macklin -- started to feel good about our chances.

In fact, the game would have been a blowout except for the fact that LSU kept making all sorts of difficult shots.  Keith Hornsby -- who is the son of Grammy Award winner Bruce Hornsby -- was firing off shots from all over the floor, while Jarell Martin (who finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds) and Jordan Mickey (16 points and 7 rebounds) were playing as well as anyone has all year against UK's front line.  Still, three guys shouldn't be enough to beat UK -- even in Baton Rouge, and the Cats appeared to have things in hand.

Still, LSU kept scoring, and UK's lead was down to 60-52 with about 10 and a half minutes to go.  At this point, I thought, Coach Calipari was trying to slow down the game.  I think Calipari wants the undefeated season much, much more than he has been willing to admit publicly, and I have noticed that he is coaching very hard to win every game.  UK is contesting almost every three-point shot, and I think part of this has to do with the fact that Calipari doesn't want to lose to one of those 12 of 21 nights from behind the arc that can happen in college basketball.  UK has also been taking the air out of the ball in late-game situations.  I'm sure that Calipari -- like me -- knew that this particular game was a major threat to the undefeated season, and he had to be extremely focused on the importance of milking this lead for the rest of the way.

At least, I assume something like that was going on, because Calipari suddenly went absolutely nuts.  With UK up 60-52, Towns headed toward the basket for what looked to be UK's 89th dunk of the game.  But he missed.  It didn't seem like that big a deal -- the ball rolled out to WCS, who tipped it in.  However, after his miss, Towns did a pull-up on the rim, and that's a technical foul in college basketball.  Cauley-Stein's tip in didn't count.  LSU got two shots and the ball.

For all my usual pessmism, I still wasn't that worried.  But Calipari was as upset as I have ever seen him -- he pulled Towns (who had been magnificent throughout) and berated him on the sidelines.  Calipari was still mad after the game, and every one of his post-game comments started with criticism of Towns's play.  I would like to know more about whether he was only angry with Towns's lack of discipline -- how much effort, for example, do the coaches put into warning people against pulling up on the rim -- or the extent to which he had a feeling (of the sort common to sports obsessives) that this particular stupid play had a cosmic significance, because it would cost UK the chance at an undefeated season.

If Calipari did have such a feeling, he was right.  With Towns (who had been UK's best player) on the sidelines, with UK's three-point shooters having a bad night (the Cats went 2-12 from three-point range), and with Calipari raging on the sidelines, the ever-eccentric Tigers suddenly looked like the best team I've seen all year.  They scored 14 points in a row to take a 64-60 lead into the media timeout with 7:42 left.  Towns was back in the game by this point, but Calipari had steadfastly refused to call time -- forcing the Cats to try to figure out what was happening on their own -- and the Cats had not been able to stop the bleeding.

UK had the ball out of the media timeout, and Hornsby immediately stole a pass from Cauley-Stein and zipped in for a layup to make the score 66-60 with 7:29 left.  Now the huge LSU crowd was going bonkers (I can only imagine what Vitale was saying), and UK was in big trouble.  And now, finally, with his team up against the wall.  Calipari called time.

When the Cats came back on the floor, it was clear that they were not going to let the game continue at the manic pace of the first 33 minutes.  The Cats were going to do what they usually do when it gets close late -- patiently work the ball inside on offense and go for a shutout on defense.  At first, it didn't look like this was going to succeed -- UK held the ball for 30 seconds without getting far.  Finally, Towns took a long jumper from the top of the key.  It went in -- UK's first points in four and one-half minutes of game time -- and the spell was broken.  The Cats were back in the game.

There was a lot of complaining from UK fans after the game about the Cats' defense, which looked somewhat shaky on this road trip.  But suddenly the Tigers were finding it very difficult to score, and UK slowly cut into LSU's lead.  With 2:43 left, a pair of free throws by Andrew Harrison left the score at LSU 69, UK 68.  Hornsby missed a three-pointer, and UK had the ball.  Aaron Harrison missed a shot, but Towns got the rebound.  Towns's shot was blocked, but UK got the ball again.  And now the Cats worked it inside to Towns, and he made an old-fashioned hook shot in the lane to put UK up 70-69.  1:30 left.

(By the way, have you ever thought how hard it would be to explain the term "barnburner" to someone from a different culture.  Imagine someone from a healthy, normal culture who hears you describe an exciting game as a "barnburner":

Person from healthy, normal culture:  Oh, you mean that the game had a potential for tragedy, such as when a barn is destroyed.

You:  No, a "barnburner" is -- well, you know, it means -- a really exciting game, a thriller.

PFHNC:  I do not understand.  It is exciting to lose your barn?  Doesn't the barn contain needed food and supplies?

You:  Well, some people -- not me, of course -- but some, excitable people (mostly in rural, you know, areas), get a thrill out of watching things, you know, well, burn.  And almost nothing burns as quickly or dramatically as a barn.

PFHNC:  Oh, I see.  The burning barn gives you a chance for heroism, as the society works together to stop the fire.  And then afterward you cooperate to build a new and better barn -- like your Amish in that movie with Harrison Ford.  Is that why the concept is exciting?

You:  Absolutely.  It doesn't have anything to do with just liking to watch things burn.  I promise.)

LSU had the ball, but they couldn't do anything with it -- they were so discombobulated that they called a timeout with only five seconds left on the shot clock -- and eventually turned the ball over without getting off a shot.  Now the Cats had the ball and the lead with less than a minute to go.  They held the ball until only 21 seconds were left in the game, and Aaron Harrison missed that running jump shot that almost never works.  Suddenly, amazingly, there was Towns again -- he tipped the missed shot up into the air, away from the LSU players, and grabbed the ball.  It was a spectacular, brilliant play -- the best play of the entire game, and one of the best of the whole year -- a play that required not only extreme athletic prowess, but determination and great basketball savvy.

And now Devin Booker was at the line for two free throws with 15 seconds left.  Some players don't like late-game free throws, but Booker (who is shooting 81 percent from the line) always looks like he's relieved that UK has the right man for the job.  Sure enough, he nailed the first one to put UK up 71-69.  But the next one was shot just a fraction too hard, and it came in and out.  Now LSU had a chance to send the game to overtime -- or go for the win.

For some reason, almost everyone in college basketball goes for the win in this situation.  There was great frustration from the commentators afterward that LSU didn't try to get the ball inside to Mickey or Martin one more time.  But I was not surprised to see Hornsby try a long contested three.  He missed, the game was over, and the Cats don't have to return to Baton Rouge until 2017.

24-0.  11-0 in SEC play.  Seven games left.

Towns finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 26 minutes, and was the difference in the game.  Cauley-Stein also played his best game in a while -- 15 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks.  In a tough, physical environment -- the Cats were given only 11 free throws in the course of the game -- UK's two biggest players had shown their mettle.

After the game, there was the usual dispute between the folks who think UK needs to learn from a defeat, and the people who believe that close wins make a team tougher in March.  I don't agree with either of these theories, so I don't really care who wins this debate.  What I do know is that I really, really wanted UK to win this game, and I'm very happy they did.


  1. This was the first game I've seen since the championship team. Pretty impressive.

  2. This was fantastic. The barnburner deal ... yes.

    Coach Cal apparently yelled at Towns as he came off the floor for his technical, "I hope we lose!" I've never really worked for a boss who would literally trash the office when something went haywire. Anyway, I'm glad this group of guys appears to be unusually suited to play for this coach.

    I'd probably be game for voting for either of the Harrisons for president some day.

  3. By the way, I wanted to give credit to the guy on the UK Message Board -- I don't remember his or her handle -- who posted a message right after the game that went something like this:

    "Hornsby didn't have the range. Sometimes, that's just the way it is."