LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Hell did not freeze over Tuesday night. But Baton Rouge sure did. On a bizarre night when an ice storm stopped the deep south in its tracks, the University of Kentucky basketball team's recent momentum ground to a stop in an 87-82 loss to Louisiana State.
From the start, LSU was the aggressor. The Tigers jumped to a 22-6 lead, lost it, built it back to double digits in the first minute of the second half and never trailed. The Wildcats, who were scheduled to return home by charter flight, had to spend the night in Louisiana as roads were shut down because of freezing.
It had to be a dark night of the soul for the Wildcats.
This is where it gets difficult. The Wildcat bandwagon, which was jammed full when they began the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, now has lost most of its passengers. The Wildcats dropped to No. 16 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings after the loss. Julius Randle, who managed just six points — a season-low — and was not in double digits for the third time in seven SEC games, dropped out of Pomeroy's player of the year index.
For the youngest team in the country, adversity has come.
The Wildcats are 2-5 away from Rupp Arena, and two of those losses are to Arkansas and LSU, teams that ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi does not have in the NCAA Tournament. Two others are to a projected No. 11 seed (North Carolina) and a No. 10 seed (Baylor). If you count the loss to Baylor in Dallas this season and to Vanderbilt in Nashville in last season's SEC Tournament, the Wildcats are 1-10 in their past 11 true road games.
More than all that, is the worry that UK just didn't seem competitive, in the fighting sense. Dan Dakich, ESPN analyst, said LSU looked like a team that was fighting while UK was "just playing." Hard to argue. And that seemed to worry UK coach John Calipari the most in his postgame remarks.
"We've got guys who have to understand if they don't come out with the energy of the other team, this is what happens," he told reporters, including WDRB's Steve Andress. " . . . When the other team outworks you, this is what it looks like. It was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16. It could have been 30. We fought to get back in it. We got back to where we were fine. We came out the second half and did the same thing. I had to call an immediate timeout. This team is in progress. It is all about the process. The process we are at right now is will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it tonight."
Among the bright spots, and perhaps the only one, was freshman Dakari Johnson, who finished with a career-high 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field with six rebounds. But LSU was more experienced on the interior and took Kentucky to the basket without regard for post defense or shot-blocking possibility.
"If Dakari plays like he is playing, he will play the most minutes, which is what he did today," Calipari said. "Alex (Poythress) did some good things, but it was the breakdowns that killed us. When you get the game down to five or six and then have breakdowns that put you back down thirteen, you can't win. That is the stuff we are talking about, mental discipline, which this team does not have."
Anthony Hickey, Kentucky's 2011 Mr. Basketball, had as many assists (6) as UK's entire starting lineup. He also had 11 points, and zero turnovers, five fewer than the Harrison twins. LSU's Johnny O'Bryant III torched the Wildcats, finishing with 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting.
And for one of the rare times this season, UK was outshot from the free-throw line. LSU got 26 attempts to UK's 13, and made 16 to UK's 9.
Finally, after trailing for the entire second half, the Wildcats caught some breaks late, and got some late threes by Aaron Harrison to trim their deficit to five points. But after LSU inbounded the ball up only five with 13.5 seconds left, UK failed to foul. The Tigers were allowed to run out the clock without having to make a free throw. UK looked as if it were just ready to leave. Calipari didn't talk about it in his postgame remarks, but for a coach who says he has to tell his young team everything, it was a stark illustration.
Calipari was frustrated, but not in panic mode. Talk of seeding won't mean much if he gets his team right and it is playing well at the right time. Few thought UK could beat North Carolina and Ohio State back-to-back three seasons ago. If you have the best team and best players, the match ups don't worry you. But this team is nowhere near the best team right now, and just when you think it is making progress toward playing better together, it goes on the road and proves otherwise.
Calipari is fond of saying that NCAA Tournament games aren't played on the road. But they aren't played in Rupp Arena, either.
"We are fine," he said. "We are playing teams that it means something to them to beat us, and we just think, ‘Well I'm ok individually'. When you watch it, we're not fine. We will go from here. Johnny O'Bryant killed us. We started the game, and I didn't want to trap. I wanted to see what would happen. That was probably a mistake on my part. We should have trapped from the beginning of the game. They played the zone. We were tentative. They offensive rebounded, and we didn't. Alex is the only one going after offensive rebounds. They negated anything Julius had. They sent two guys at him.
"They played good. You have to give them credit. They played well. We don't have many teams that shoot 50 percent against us like this team did. We are a good defensive team. Not only that, they had 10 offensive rebounds and created 10 turnovers on us. Most of them were in the zone where they had hands in the middle of the zone. They did a great job. You have to give LSU credit."
Yes, you have to give LSU credit. But where Kentucky is concerned, now you officially have to wonder.