March is no time for a hiccup, especially if you’re hoping that an SEC Tournament title will be a springboard to a national championship. But Kentucky had acid reflux early Friday afternoon in New Orleans. The Wildcats struggled to a nine-point win (60-51) against LSU in round two of the SEC tournament. But for most of the game, the Tigers, not the Wildcats, were the story.
For 25 minutes, LSU teased basketball fans with thoughts of the biggest upset of March. Not only did the Tigers hold SEC Player of the Year Anthony Davis scoreless from the floor in the first half, LSU got off 14 more shots than Kentucky in the first period. Tiger guard Anthony Hickey sped around the court like an annoying fly, forcing three steals, scoring 10 points, running the floor and leading breaks in transition.
Kentucky seemed lost and slow. They had nine first-half turnovers and their half-court offense appeared stuck. The shots, many of which went up as the shot-clocked wound perilously close to zero, looked desperate.
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But all great teams have down moments. In those moments, real champions find a different gear, and an unlikely hero emerges.
Overdrive for the Wildcats came with just over 12 minutes remaining, after yet another Hickey steal and transition basket put the Tigers up by five. John Calipari took a time-out and calmly (by Calipari standards) gave the Cats a gut-check.
“We weren’t ready to be that physical,” Calipari said. “Even at the end, I had to pull some guys out because they weren’t able to be physical enough. We were getting bumped and we couldn’t hold on to balls.”
With 10 minutes left in the game, the Cats needed a floor general, someone to spark a charge and change the momentum. They found it in Terrence Jones, who overcame four turnovers to score 15 points, including nine in a row to erase the deficit and give Kentucky the lead.
The sophomore played like a man who refused to lose, moving quicker than his 6-foot-9 frame would suggest and infusing enthusiasm in his teammates that had been sorely lacking. After Jones’ hard-charging run, the Cats opened up a six- and then nine-point lead. Despite Hickey’s continued hard play, that turned out to be enough.
“In the second half, we went in and said, we need to take over and start getting the ball in the post, making open shots, and always be ready to shoot,” Jones said. “And that’s what we did.”
On the stat sheet, Jones’ contributions don’t look as impressive as they were on the floor. But Anthony Davis’ four field goals, all in the second half, and 14 rebounds were largely due to the inspiration he felt from Jones.
Calipari knows he dodged a bullet. But he also knows that there will be plenty of additional ammo fired in his direction this weekend and in the NCAA tournament.
“Let me give you a couple things that happened,” he said. “One, they were playing out of desperation. Our players are so young they didn’t understand. That’s going to happen from here on out. Every game we play, someone’s in desperation.
“The second thing is: we got lackadaisical. We had three turnovers that were unforced. You can’t make those. What if it was a two-bucket game? All of a sudden, bang, they hit a three, and you go home. Your season is over. It’s done.
“These guys sometimes think, well, eight months ago, I was playing in Vegas, and if we lost, we had another game at 6:00. Well, this isn’t AAU. This is real. And so teaching these guys that was a great lesson. That’s what I talked about after the game.”
Hopefully he won’t have to have that conversation again. One hiccup is enough in single elimination play. Another one, and the No. 1 team in the nation could find themselves watching basketball at home in Lexington.