BATON ROUGE, La. (AP)—Gerald Fitch is real comfortable taking long-range jumpers.
Fitch, a 42 percent 3-point shooter in Southeastern Conference games, made five of eight from beyond the arc and scored 23 points to lead No. 9 Kentucky over LSU 70-64 Sunday.
“That’s just me being me and doing what I do,” Fitch said of his first 20-point game since Jan. 13.
The victory clinched the SEC Eastern Division title for Kentucky (21-4, 11-3).
“Right now every game is a big game,” Kentucky forward Erik Daniels said. “We’re trying to get a No. 1 seed in the East in the SEC tournament and a good seed in the NCAA tournament.”
It was the fourth straight loss for LSU (17-8, 7-7) and dropped the Tigers into a tie for No. 2 in the SEC West with Alabama, although the Tigers hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their two wins during the season.
Kentucky, which beat Tennessee by 32 points Wednesday, had a tougher time against the persistent Tigers.
LSU shot 43.5 percent against Kentucky’s 47 percent, but made one more 3-pointer (7-23) and went 17-of-17 from the free throw line.
Daniels scored 14 points for Kentucky and Cliff Hawkins had 13.
LSU played without its leading scorer and rebounder, Jaime Lloreda. Lloreda who injured his left heel earlier this month was limping after practice Friday and pulled himself out of practice on Saturday.
With Lloreda out, LSU was left most of the time with four freshman on the court, frequently against four Kentucky seniors.
“I knew it would be a real battle even without Jaime,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “I was real impressed, losing their best player and being able to play like that tells you a little about the character and toughness of their team.”
Darrel Mitchell led LSU with 15 points, including 4-of-8 for 3-pointers, freshman Brandon Bass had 13 and Xavier Whipple added 10.
“You expect a team of seniors to handle adversity and bounce back,” LSU coach John Brady said. “You had four and five freshmen playing the majority of the minutes and a lot of time it was four freshmen and one sophomore, Darrel Mitchell.”
In the second half, Kentucky stretched its lead to 43-34 on a dunk by Chuck Hayes with 15:16 remaining. The Tigers cut the lead to 45-41 on a 3-pointer by Mitchell, then watched Kentucky go on an 11-0 run to pull ahead 52-41 with 9:56 to go.
LSU struggled to get inside against the bigger Kentucky lineup. The Tigers came back to within three, 59-56, with 3:16 left. LSU’s 15-6 run was fueled by nine free throws.
Kentucky appeared to put it away on Fitch’s fifth 3-pointer that gave the Wildcats a 62-56 lead with 2:57 remaining. But the Tigers rallied. Mitchell made a 3-pointer—landing on his back—with 37 seconds left that cut Kentucky’s lead to 64-61. He then sank a free throw to close the gap to two. The Tigers had to foul and Hawkins sank both free throws, making it 65-62 with 35 seconds left.
Whipple’s jumper with 20 seconds made it 66-64, but the Wildcats made all four free throws down the stretch.
Kentucky opened the game with a 6-0 run and led by six two other times in the first half. The Wildcats couldn’t shake off the Tigers, however.
LSU took a 19-18 lead on Lazare’s jumper with 9:37 left, then went up 29-28 on a 3-pointer by Mitchell with 3:16 remaining.
Both teams shot 50 percent in the first half and Kentucky held a 33-29 edge at the break.