- Sunday, February 29 2004 -
Kentucky - 70 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Ranked 9th by AP and 9th by ESPN/USA Today]
Louisiana State - 64 (Head Coach: John Brady) - [Unranked]
|Ross Neltner (*)||22||2||4||0||0||1||1||1||2||3||2||2||0||0||0||5|
Halftime Score: Kentucky 33, Louisiana State 29
|Prior Game|||||Next Game|
|Tennessee 92 - 60|||||South Carolina 84 - 65|
Game Writeup - Written by and courtesy of Matt May; Kentucky Sports Report, (All Rights Reserved)
No miracle needed this time, UK beats LSU
BATON ROUGE, La. Ð One thing you can say about the Kentucky basketball team, it is never boring.
The Cats led all but 13 seconds of their battle with LSU on the Louisiana Bayou, but couldn't shake the Tigers, who pulled within two points twice in the final 40 seconds before the Cats held on for a 70-64 victory.
Even with the typically tense final moments, UK clinched the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division crown, the fifth consecutive piece of a division crown for the Cats. The Cats raised their record to 21-4 overall, 11-3 in the league, making them 27-3 over the past two seasons in the SEC.
"Clinching the East championship, it's an unbelievable accomplishment," UK coach Tubby Smith said. "We were picked to be there but that's tougher sometimes to do than when you're not picked. This team accepted the challenge and embraced it."
The game was much like most of the SEC games the Cats have played. UK led throughout the contest, but made just enough mistakes to allow LSU to hang around. The Tigers (17-8, 7-7) got within four points more than a half-dozen times in the second half, but each time the Cats answered with a clutch shot.
After LSU had closed the gap to 56-52 at 5:05 left, Cliff Hawkins rose up for a long three-pointer from the top of the key and extended the lead back out to seven. Moments later, with LSU nipping at UK's heels 59-56, Gerald Fitch buried his fifth three-pointer of the game from the corner off an improvised play.
Fitch, who scored a game-high 23 points off the bench, inbounded the ball to Chuck Hayes on the block with 2:58 left. Fitch immediately stepped in bounds and floated to the corner, where Hayes hit him with a flip pass and Fitch drilled the triple over an LSU defender to give UK a 62-56 lead.
"It was just a read," Hayes said. "The shot was supposed to be for Kelenna (Azubuike) but Gerald hollered at me and I saw what he saw. I flipped the ball to him and tried to set a screen."
Predictably understated, Fitch said he was just doing what he lives to do.
"That's just me being me," Fitch said. "I don't know what to say."
Even with the Cats sticking a dagger in the Tigers hearts each time they got close, LSU kept fighting back despite leading scorer and rebounder Jaime Lloreda missing the game with a heel injury. The Tigers hit five first half three-pointers to stay keep the UK edge at only four at intermission, then converted all 15 of their free throws in the second half to stick around.
LSU finally got the window of opportunity it needed to perhaps steal a victory when UK sophomore Kelenna Azubuike made two mental mistakes in the final minute of play. Azubuike first took an ill-advised three early in the shot clock with a minute left, then fouled LSU's Darrel Mitchell on a long three that he made and converted into a four-point play to pull LSU to 64-62 with 37.2 seconds left.
"Once you screw up, you try to focus in and not do it again," Azubuike said. "I'm glad we won the game so (the team) can't blame the loss on me."
UK did hold on, nailing all six of its free throws in last 35 seconds. Once again, it was a wealth of experience and clutch plays that pushed the Cats past another SEC opponent.
"We've been here before," Hawkins said. "It didn't faze us."
Even LSU coach John Brady admitted UK has a tough combination to beat when the game is on the line.
"You have to give Kentucky credit for making plays when they needed to," Brady said. "That is why they are where they are."
Kelenna Azubuike (#24) dunks in style
Gerald Fitch (#4) works in traffic as LSU's Brandon Bass defends