LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Marcus Thornton suffered in silence as LSU stumbled through a nightmarish 2007-08 season that ended up costing coach John Brady his job.
So forgive Thornton if he couldn’t help himself moments after the 18th-ranked Tigers capped their remarkable turnaround under new coach Trent Johnson with a dramatic 73-70 win over Kentucky on Saturday.
Thornton threw the ball toward the rafters at stunned Rupp Arena when the final horn sounded and screamed while hopping toward his jubilant teammates as LSU celebrated winning the Southeastern Conference title outright in style.
“I got in a groove in the second half and I didn’t feel like I could miss,” said Thornton, who led LSU with 23 points. “I didn’t feel like anyone could guard me. I just got on a roll.”
So did Tasmin Mitchell, who calmly drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 9.8 second remaining as the Tigers (25-4, 13-1) won their 10th straight and put a severe dent in Kentucky’s NCAA tournament hopes. The victory was LSU’s first at Kentucky in 20 years, as Mitchell and company triumphed where former LSU stars Shaquille O’Neal and Glen Davis failed.
It was a win that seemed in jeopardy after Kentucky’s Darius Miller hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 70 with 27 seconds left.
No biggie. Thornton worked the ball up the floor and got a pick from Mitchell. Kentucky’s A.J. Stewart jumped out to help teammate Kevin Galloway cover Thornton, leaving Mitchell just enough room to knock down another big shot in a season full of them for the Tigers.
“We were supposed to switch, it was just bad communication on our part,” said Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks. “When the shot went up, I was hoping it wouldn’t go in, but he was hot all day. To lose like that really hurts.”
Kentucky (19-10, 8-6) had one last chance to tie it, but Meeks badly missed a contested 3-pointer with 3 seconds left to send the Wildcats to their sixth loss in nine games.
“We’re just not a mature enough team to beat a team that is smart and mature (like) LSU is,” said Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.
The Tigers needed that maturity after Kentucky rallied from 12 points down to take a 54-44 lead with 11 minutes left. Rather than panic, the Tigers simply turned to Thornton, who shook off a subpar first half to score 15 points down the stretch.
“Even when we got down 10, we never gave up,” said Mitchell, who finished with 21 points. “We knew if we could play defense we could get back in the game and that’s what we did.”
Patrick Patterson led Kentucky with 28 points and Meeks added 24, but the SEC’s leading scorer made just 1-of-9 3-pointers and turned it over five times.
“They just wanted it more than we did,” Patterson said. “I still think we can beat LSU. The last shot just didn’t go in.”
Kentucky shot 54 percent from the floor—including a remarkable 61 percent in the second half—but couldn’t slow down Thornton when it mattered.
“We’re just not playing quite smart enough to beat a real good team,” Gillispie said. “I thought we took a lot of bad shots (late) and we turned it over a couple times.”
They’re the kind of mistakes Gillispie could tolerate as growing pains in December. Not in February. Now the Wildcats head into March likely needing wins against Georgia and Florida and maybe even a victory in the SEC tournament to secure an NCAA tournament berth for the 18th straight year.
It’s a position the Wildcats didn’t think they’d be in five weeks ago, when they looked like the best team in a middling SEC. Kentucky won its first five league games before imploding in February despite the sometimes dazzling play of Meeks and Patterson.
“We’ve just got to put this behind us and get ready for Georgia now,” Meeks said. “We’re down, but we’re not out.”
The Tigers have no such worries. Picked to finish behind Alabama in the SEC West before the season started, LSU has stormed through the conference by taking care of the ball and relying on the play of its upperclassmen like Mitchell and Thornton when things get tight.
“We knew that we were going to have guys that were experienced get a lot of playing time,” said LSU guard Garrett Temple. “We tried to mesh together really well early in the season and it has paid off for us. We have bought into coach’s system and know that he knows how to win.”