- LSU is a team to be reckoned with, and its latest road win over Kentucky proves that the SEC is more than just a two-team race.
SEC basketball fans have had Feb. 16 circled on the calendar for weeks in anticipation of this season's first meeting between Tennessee, which just opened its fourth week as the No. 1 team in the AP poll, and Kentucky, which has worked its way back into the top five after an uneven start. Now, instead of a de facto home-and-home for the league’s regular-season crown, it's clear the Volunteers and Wildcats—along with everyone else in the nation—have another SEC contender to worry about.
With its leading scorer struggling and Rupp Arena frothing, LSU found a way to knock off Kentucky, 73–71, in Lexington on Tuesday night, dealing the Wildcats their first home loss of the season and leaving the Tigers alone in second behind Tennessee with a 10–1 record in SEC play.
After Keldon Johnson hit two free throws with 6.0 seconds left to tie the score at 71, Kentucky did everything it could to keep the ball out of the hands of LSU point guard Tremont Waters. That freed up Skylar Mays to take the ball the length of the floor and put up a high floater off the glass that drew three Wildcat defenders ... and left Kavell Bigby-Williams wide open for a tip-in at the buzzer (that probably shouldn't have counted—the ball had bounced off the rim but was still within the cylinder extending upward, opening the door for basket interference).
The final minute, and the 39 that came before, will be talked about for a while in Lexington and beyond. But for now, everyone in the college basketball world who doesn't have a 225 area code probably needs to play catch up. Luckily, this game provided a pretty good introductory course.
Even on an off night, Tremont Waters is everywhere
LSU's electric sophomore is one of the best ball handlers and most confident long-distance shooters in the country, and he fundamentally changed the game even on a night when he finished 3-of-13 from the field. Kentucky tasked freshman lockdown defender Ashton Hagans with marking Waters, but Hagans picked up his first foul 18 seconds into the game and was promptly called back to the bench by John Calipari. Backup point guard Immanuel Quickley kept Waters admirably in check early, but he too ended up in foul trouble.
Despite his shooting woes, a perfect 8-for-8 performance at the free throw line helped Waters lead all LSU scorers with 15 points, and he pitched in elsewhere else, with three of LSU's eight steals—he ranks sixth in the country with a steal percentage of 5.34—and five assists, including this mesmerizing lob:
And in a back-and-forth battle over the final minutes, this circus shot that Waters got to fall foreshadowed the stunner in the works.
PJ Washington and Reid Travis were fine, and LSU's bigs still got the upper hand
Washington continued his emergence as the heartbeat of this year's Kentucky team, finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds and playing smart late while he was in foul trouble. Travis, the graduate transfer from Stanford many assumed would emerge as the heartbeat of this year's Kentucky team, has seen his scoring fall off a cliff in SEC play but came up huge several times on the boards with five offensive rebounds.
None of that mattered against an LSU frontcourt that terrorizes lesser teams and could prove to be an equalizer against top competition ahead. Bigby-Williams, the 6'11" senior who started his college career at Oregon, had two blocks to hold his per-game average steady on top of his game-winning putback. But it was the Tigers' two freshmen, Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams, who shined. After LSU spent the first 10 minutes of the second half trimming an eight-point halftime deficit, Williams scored six consecutive points to give the visitors the lead, and Reid hit a deep three with 4:44 left to reclaim it for good after Kentucky battled back. Reid has a versatile game that makes him a matchup nightmare, even as he has become the second-most dangerous LSU player on the floor in opposing scouting reports. And if Williams can become a consistent double-digit scoring threat, LSU could offer the diversity of threats inside that they do outside.
LSU isn't afraid of anyone, and shouldn't be
This is a greener and grittier team than it's getting credit for, ranked 326th in experience according to kenpom.com. It lost back-to-back games to Florida State and Oklahoma State in Orlando in November, lost by six at one-loss Houston and most recently suffered a one-point heartbreaker at home against Arkansas, at which point it seemed that the preceding 10-game winning streak was a mirage. Instead, the Tigers have won three straight games against tournament teams in Mississippi State, Auburn and now Kentucky, and Tennessee's trip to Baton Rouge on Feb. 23 just got a lot more interesting.
"We were able to hang, hang. hang, hang, hang, and then we imposed our will in the second half," Wade said.
The number of teams that can produce an effective counter once LSU decides to impose its will may be shrinking.