Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s bad loss at LSU

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 75-74 loss to the LSU Tigers on Wednesday night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

1. Let’s be honest, this was a bad Kentucky loss

LSU entered the game 5-7 in the SEC. The Tigers were 88th in the NCAA NET rankings, with a 3-7 record in Quad 1 games. They were 77th in the KenPom rankings, with identical No. 87 rankings in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency. A powerhouse, LSU is not.

Moreover, Kentucky led the Tigers by 15 points, 42-27, less than a minute into the second half on Wednesday. And lost. It lost because it didn’t play defense in the second half (more on that later). It lost because aside from Antonio Reeves in the first half and Rob Dillingham in the second, it failed to muster a consistent offensive effort. It lost because it failed to protect the rim or grab the rebound on the game’s final play.

“We lost because we didn’t get 50-50 balls,” UK coach John Calipari said before scurrying off to catch the Cats’ charter flight back to Lexington.

There was some truth to that. When it counted, LSU beat Kentucky to the loose balls, especially on the final play when after Adou Thiero blocked Jordan Wright’s shot, the LSU forward was able to catch the ball and throw it to the rim where teammate Tyrell Ward caught it and then scored right before the buzzer.

It should never have come to that, however. Fresh off that impressive 11-point win at Auburn last Saturday — Auburn’s first home loss of the season — and with a 15-point lead in the second half, Kentucky should have closed out the Tigers, but it couldn’t.

2. So much for UK’s defensive turnaround

After giving up 63 points to Ole Miss in a 12-point win at Rupp Arena, then 59 points to Auburn in an 11-point road win, Kentucky’s defensive problems were thought to be solved.

Not so fast, my friends. Sure, Calipari’s club held LSU to 29 points in the first half, but the Tigers came roaring back in the second. And where Auburn missed open looks on Saturday, LSU knocked them down on Wednesday.

Matt McMahon’s team scored 48 points in the game’s final 19 minutes. The Tigers shot 48.5% the second half, including 55.6% from 3-point range on 5-for-9 shooting beyond the arc. LSU also outrebounded UK 22-12 in the second half. And while the PMAC was not full, the Tigers turned the crowd loud when they made their comeback.

“We couldn’t get stops,” UK’s Reeves said.

Said LSU’s Ward, “We just wanted it more, that simple.”

Asked what now for Kentucky, Reeves said, “It’s back to the drawing board.”

3. This could be another tough stretch

Here’s the thing: LSU was supposedly the easiest opponent in this three-game stretch for the Cats. Alabama comes to Rupp Arena on Saturday. UK travels to Mississippi State next Tuesday. The Bulldogs beat Ole Miss 83-71 in Starkville on Wednesday to improve to 7-6 in league play, just a game behind the Cats in the SEC standings. State has won four straight games.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is 4-5 over its last nine games. The Cats are now 18-8 overall and 8-5 in the SEC. After the win over Auburn, there was some talk that Kentucky might be able to win the regular-season conference title. Now, the Cats will have to fight to earn the double-bye in the conference tournament.

You also have to wonder what the mental effect will be from Wednesday’s loss. This young team was full of confidence — certainly its coach was riding high — after the big win at Auburn. To turn around and lose four days later to a team with a sub-.500 league record has to poke a hole in UK’s confidence level.

In Calipari’s words, Kentucky reverted on Wednesday. So again UK’s defense is in question just when the nation’s highest-scoring team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, rolls into Rupp Arena on Saturday. The timing doesn’t appear to be great.

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