LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Kentucky Wildcats broke open a tight game in the final six minutes of the first half and then exploded on offense midway through the second half as the Wildcats grabbed a share of the Southeastern Conference championship with a 94-77 win over the LSU Tigers Saturday at Rupp Arena.
With the loss, LSU finishes with the same conference record as a year ago (11-7) and will be the No. 4 seed when the Southeastern Conference tournament gets underway Wednesday at the Bridgestone Area in Nashville. LSU, South Carolina and Vandy all tied for third place in the league standings at 11-7 and South Carolina gets the third seed because of the best record combined against LSU and Vandy. LSU beat Vanderbilt in their lone meeting, giving LSU the fourth seed and Vanderbilt the fifth seed.
LSU will get one of the four double byes with Texas A&M (1), Kentucky (2), Carolina (3) and LSU (4) into Friday’s quarterfinals (second game of the day) while Vandy will play on Thursday in the second game of the day against the winner of the Wednesday night game between No. 12 Tennessee and No. 13 Auburn.
Three LSU players were in double figures for the game with Tim Quarterman leading LSU with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including two treys and 3-of-3 at the free throw line. Antonio Blakeney continued his strong play in the last month, scoring 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting and 4-of-4 at the line with one trey. Ben Simmons had 17 points and 11 rebounds for his 22nd double double and a season high seven steals.
Kentucky got scoring throughout its starting lineup as Jamal Murray had 22 points with four treys to lead the Wildcats (23-8, 13-5), while Skal Labissiere had one of his best games, hitting 8-of-10 from the field in an 18-point, 6-block effort. Tyler Ulis had 14 points and 14 assists and just one turnover in 38 minutes, while Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee had 12 points each (Lee 10 rebounds).
The Wildcats were able to turn the tables on an 18-point win for the Tigers in Baton Rouge on Jan. 5 and also on a double digit rebound deficit in the first meeting. Kentucky on Saturday had a 45-29 advantage on the boards, including 18-10 on the offensive end, leading to an 18-10 advantage in second chance points.
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After falling behind 4-0 on buckets by Ulis and Poythress, LSU got going on a jumper by Craig Victor II, a three-pointer by Jalyn Patterson and three steals on consecutive possessions that led to two lay-up by Simmons that game LSU a 9-4 lead at the 16:12 mark.
After Kentucky cut the margin to 9-8, Quarterman got a dunk and Blakeney a three that advanced the margin to 14-8 with 13:31 to go in the first half,
But the Cats were able to get things going and scored the next points to go up 17-14. The two teams traded a couple of leads with LSU leading for the final time at 21-20 with 8:20 go on a Simmons bucket. From there, Kentucky outscored LSU, 21-12, to take the 41-32 advantage at the intermission.
In the second half, Kentucky used a 9-1 run to open the margin to 16 at 53-37 with 15:53 to go in the game before LSU tried to get back into thing, closing the game to nine twice on back-to-back buckets by Quarterman and Victor.
But that was as close as the Tigers could stay in the second half as the Wildcats slowed expanded the game to 20 points, 70-52, with 7:49 to play in a sequence of back-to-back three-pointers and dunk by Poythress. Kentucky’s biggest lead was 26 points at 89-63 with 3:45 to play before LSU closed with a 14-5 run for the final margin.
For the game, LSU shot 45.2 percent overall (28-of-62), including 18-of32 in the second half (56.3%) and 3-of-6 from the arc. But the Tigers were held to just 10-of-30 in the first half of play. The Wildcats made 38-of-72 field goal attempts and 7-of-18 from the arc in the contest (52.8% field goal shooting) after starting 17-30 in the first half of play.
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LSU Head Coach Johnny Jones
On the game overall and the playing environment...
“It’s a very talented team basketball team in Kentucky. This is a team that we had some success with early in the year at our place and we knew that they would be a much more focused basketball team than what they were. We got off to a great start. We played extremely well in this environment, bringing our team here for the first time, and not a guy on our team had ever played at this arena before. It was interesting to see how they would react.”
On the difference between the way UK played away and then at home...
“The difference in the way that they played today then how they played at our place was that we were plus 16 on the boards and we out rebounded them by 16 points, and we had second chance opportunities. Today they were the aggressor and did a great job of getting second chance opportunities. I think they had 18 second chance points, that’s big when you have the number they had in terms of rebounds. That’s tough to overcome.”
On reaction to Skal Labissiere’s game...
“Skal had an exceptional game today, he was 8 for 10 from the field and he hit a lot of open looks today and I thought he played extremely comfortably with some of the big shots he hit. He also got nine rebounds, so it’s a huge night for him and he got six blocks so I thought he was very competitive out there on the floor. I thought this has been his best performance.”
On what he wants to see out of his team in the SEC Tournament...
“Well, at least we’ll be back on a neutral floor. I think in the SEC Tournament we have to be more committed on the defensive end and do a better job of blocking out. If we can defend and rebound in the tournament, we will have a little bit of firepower to score points.”
#25, Ben Simmons, Forward
On how much better Kentucky’s bigger guys played today ...
“They played a lot better. They were hitting a lot of shots, rebounding. They were just doing little things tonight.”
On what LSU has to do in the SEC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament ...
“We have to win. We have to win every game. That’s what’s going to be important.”
On how much leadership is a problem for this LSU team ...
“It’s up and down. We have guys that can lead the team. Tim Quarterman had to step up, I have to step up a little bit when we lose one of those guys.”
On what went wrong when reflecting back on the regular season ...
“A lot of it is self-inflicted. We have lost a lot of games because of the way we have played and how other teams have played and the little things like rebounding, turning the ball over, free throws. Little things.”
Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari
Q. Kentucky has had 13 undefeated seasons at home, you have five of them. Can you speak to what it means to come in here and be so dominant with this team?
COACH CALIPARI: We've got really good players. That's why. The year we weren't undefeated, that was on me. We've had really good players. And we were just trying to win the next one. I don't even know we were undefeated. If that's what we are, that's great.
Q. You talk a little bit today about the play of Skal [Labissiere], and I know you said Thursday he didn't practice very well. I assume yesterday he must have?
COACH CALIPARI: He was okay. I thought he was too worried about a matchup with him and Ben [Simmons] instead of just loving that you're playing. Be excited you're playing now and you're an integral part of with what we're doing. Be excited.
That's what I got on him about after practice. And he was great. Here's a kid that's taken a lot of grief and goes for 18 and nine and six blocks. Like he looked really good in that game, and he's getting better. The biggest things, folks, if you understand, it's two things. First, we try to empower or team.
South Carolina empowered them. There were things that happened today that they called on their own, not from the bench. And when we had a timeout, I told them, I said, you know what, I love it.
But empowered is first thing, and then the second thing is you gotta have a confident team going into that tournament. And it can't be two guys. So now you look at Alex [Poythress] playing with confidence, Marcus [Lee] playing with confidence, Derek [Willis] playing with confidence, Skal playing with confidence, the other guys playing with confidence, and now all of a sudden we got an empowered team that's playing with confidence.
Now, again, I told them after, I said, by the way, you won the league championship. I don't know if you even know or care, but you did. They just said, yeah, where's the food. They don't care. They just want to go on to the next thing.
But it was a good win and a good game.
Q. In some ways do you like, though, that Skal was trying to get himself worked up for a matchup against a guy --
COACH CALIPARI: No, no, because you can't -- just be -- you gotta be into yourself in this. You can't -- you can't worry about the game the day before, lose sleep worried about anxiety. You just gotta stay in the moment and be the best you can be. He's beginning to be the best he can be. I'm really proud of him because it's been hard.
And the reason he started is because he had an unbelievable practice, and I look at Tyler [Ulis] and I said, ‘I'm thinking about starting him, what do you think?’ He said, ‘yeah, do it.’ I said, ‘you know what, I'm going to do it.’ And now he's kind of broken through from that.
How about Tyler, 14 assists, one turnover? And again, we can make arguments. I looked at him after, I said, ‘you had 14 assists one turnover; if you had made any shots, you'd have had 20 and 14.’ He missed every shot. And he laughed. But you know, you're talking about a player of the year candidate nationally. If there's a better point guard in the country, you gotta show me who he is, and I gotta watch tape. I told the team after, he's made their job easy. He's built confidence in big guys and how he's letting them play, and he makes my job easier because he's coaching that team on the floor.
Q. 26 assists to their 9. Was this one of your better games passing today?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, again, we're throwing to guys who are more confident right now. When you're throwing to guys that are missing one-footers and layups and missing wide-open shots that are almost air balls -- you know, right now we got a confident team. So the way we play, which is we're playing fast; we're trying to score in the first ten seconds. That's how we're playing. But we're also grinding it.
I mean we shot 52 percent, 53, and the reality of it is we were probably about 56, 57 until we missed about three shots in a row at the end.
Q. When you have the good version of Derek and the good version of Skal from today to go with Ulis and Murray, what's the ceiling on this team? Is it championship level do you think?
COACH CALIPARI: I don't know. I don't know what we are, but the best thing we can hope for is the best version of ourselves and a confident team, an empowered team. Whatever that means it means. And we gotta live with what that means. I mean there are other really good teams in the country. But right now, you know, if there's 15 teams better than us, I got to see them. I mean we're pretty good right now. We've had one game where, you know, where we'd have one more.
Q. Of all the players you've coached and watched, where is Jamal [Murray] as a shooter, just a pure shooter from the perimeter?
COACH CALIPARI: He's more than a shooter. He's a scorer. But what we're getting him to do is catch and shoot, and the rest of his game where he's getting the ball by people, where he's scoring from the foul line, where he's doing those kind of things have really made him the most efficient player.
Now, let me say this. Again, he took 12 shots and scored 22. I think down in Florida he had 18 points on six shots or something crazy down there. He may be the most efficient guard who's a volume scorer, but not a volume shooter.
No one wants to play with a volume shooter, a guy who's trying to take 25 shots. No one wants to play with that guy. How about what I said after, he's not getting the ball and not getting points. He never said one word. Never said one word. I went to him and Tyler and said, Tyler, you gotta get him more involved. Tell him what you want, Jamal, how he can get you involved. But he never said anything, which makes it kind of neat.
Q. Speaking of confidence, is Jamal's bow-and-arrow move --
COACH CALIPARI: The only thing is they had a three- point shooter back in the corner, and he's doing the bow and arrow and the kid is shooting a three on him. Thank goodness he missed it. Again, he still does some freshman things.
Let me say this. Really all these guys, but him especially, I love coaching him because he always has a smile on his face. He's not afraid to say stuff to me. Isaiah [Briscoe] laughs at all my jokes; he gets them. Some of the guys have no idea what I just said, and he's laughing with me, so he and I laugh together.
But you know, I want them all to do well. I want them to be the best version of themselves. I want them to be able to go in games, in heated games against an opponent that's unbelievable and you're going to war and you know, all right, let's go do this.
And that's what we're getting to. And it's what we try to do every year. There are some years that we may not be like this. But I can remember '13-'14, and we went into that tournament just starting to play well. I mean this has been a pretty good effort.
Q. Are you satisfied with the way Derek came back and what you got out of him?
COACH CALIPARI: Yeah. Oh, I loved it. Absolutely. I told him after he was terrific. We all were in the huddle. You shoot the ball. If you don't shoot it, you're coming out. Let it go. Doesn't matter if you make it or not. You just gotta get comfortable shooting balls. If you're covered, that's different. You're not passing up ball faking on open shots. And the team finds him, and you know, he lets it go. He's really made us different.
Q. How has your relationship with Jamal changed from the start of the year?
COACH CALIPARI: No, he's been great. I mean it's been hard on him because I had to get him to think different in how he played, from shot selection to casual play at times to trying to make the hardest play instead of the easiest play, degree of difficulty on shots, how hard can I make this to make it look -- that's done. Defensively, getting him to really buy in, all that's been a fight now.
Now, I've been on him. It's not been easy for him. But you know what, he's responded -- he wants to be coached, tell me. You know, he wants to be coached.
Been hard on Skal, and that's why I'm so happy for him.
Q. Were you happy to see the reception that Alex got before and after the game and sort of that he was able to have here at the end of his career?
COACH CALIPARI: Yeah. And I took him out because I was afraid he was going to get hurt. I didn't know if he and that kid would get into it, and I just told him, I'm going to put you in for another second here and get you out.
But our fans are the best. And you know what, they love senior night in this state. It's a big deal. Senior night's a big deal. Bigger deal for our fans than those players. They'd rather have been drafted already. If you want me to lie, I'll lie. And then come back and get their degree.
But the great thing for Alex, he graduated in three years. He's been a part of this program and seen all the highs and lows of it. He's made unbelievable friends and he's going to be a professional basketball player. It's kind of neat to see and neat to see how much he's grown.
Today -- and for the first time he struggled early, and he changed it. And then he became a beast. That hadn't happened. So I told him that was a big breakthrough for him.
Q. One other thing about Jamal. How good of a sign is it that he only took one shot in the first half and you're up nine at the break?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, but again, he's the guy that creates the gap for us to be up 20, he and Tyler. But the other guys playing with confidence, you know, you can still be up if they're not getting shots or making shots.
And like I said, we tweaked some things, we did some things to try to get some of this stuff changed, and the kids are responding to him and doing great.
Q. It feels like your team went from lacking confidence to being supremely confident overnight. Was there a defining moment or anything like that?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, first of all, we did -- there's two parts of it. First of all, they gotta understand, their confidence comes from within, not exterior. It's not someone else that builds your confidence and it's not someone else that takes your confidence away. By working hard -- what a coach can do is drive them to do more than they think they can do to push them so they look at themselves and say, wow, I didn't know I could do this. Man, this is making me better. I love this. And you can be hard on them; you can challenge them. You can be tough. That helps them build their own confidence.
When they build their own confidence, there's nothing I can say or you can say or a fan can write or say that takes it away. They have their own confidence. So we had to explain that to them because I think a bunch of them were thinking exterior things are making my confidence Wayne. No, it isn't. No. That's your excuse, but no one here is buying it.
The second thing as a coach is you put them in positions that they can build -- don't have them do stuff they can't do because that doesn't play into them building their own confidence, because it's hard work, demonstrated performance, on the court, in games that builds your confidence. So my job is to drive them. Second thing is to put them in the great position. But they have to understand, I don't build your confidence. And I don't take your confidence away. You do that yourself.
And we kind of went at it, and then we tried to tweak a couple things that put them in better positions, for them as individual players. And should have done it earlier. I didn't. I'm still figuring out this team. But I'm proud of them and proud of what they've done. Thank you.
#1, Skal Labissiere
On past struggles vanishing if this team can make a run in the tournament ...
“I guess. Right now we are just focused on, like you said, making a run in the tournament. Right now we are getting guys more confident, and hopefully make a run in the tournament.”
On how different this team is when he is playing better ...
“It’s pretty different. It’s about all of us doing what our team needs to be successful. That’s been our main focus over the last couple of months, and I think we are a better team than we were at the beginning of the year. ”
On your rise in confidence ...
“I feel pretty good. I’ve been working, and I believe in me more to succeed. Early on, my confidence was still there, I was just going through a tough time.”
On one thing that he has done to improve his game ...
“Just being more physical. Being more focused on what I need to do for the team. On the defensive end, being more of a defensive presence, and on the offensive end doing whatever the team needs me to do.”
#3, Tyler Ulis, G
On team’s confidence ...
“Everyone is starting to get a feel for everything. Everyone is doing their job and coming out confident.”
On how he constantly is successful...
“I’m just playing hard and everyone comes out and give there all.”
On Skals performance today ...
“Well he is confident right now. Skal is a very skilled player, not everybody has seen everything he is able to do. Now he is hitting shots, making moves in the post, he is helping himself out.”
On if they are putting everything together at the right time ...
“It feels like we are putting everything together at the right time. Skal stepping up, Alex and Marcus are also playing big. Everyone is starting to do their job.”
On going into the SEC tournament...
“It is perfect timing going into the SEC tournament because were playing teams that we know. We just have to go into every game and fight.”
#22, Alex Poythress, F
On the Senior Night presentation ...
“It was great. There were a lot of memories. I really loved Aaron’s speech. It was great to be a part of this.”
“It was a great feeling. These are some of the memories I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life. So, I am just happy to be a part of it.”
On Tyler’s game today ...
“He runs our team and puts us in situations to win. He is really a coach out there for us.”
On everyone being healthy ...
“It’s tournament time, it’s the time you want to click. It’s when you want everybody healthy and everybody at their best. This is what you work for all year.”