TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Bent over, hands on knees and head bowed, an exhausted Ramon Harris could have been a poster boy for the current state of Kentucky basketball.
The struggling Wildcats lost in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday. Their streak of 17 consecutive NCAA appearances is in serious jeopardy, too, after falling to No. 20 LSU 67-58.
“I would say it’s a longshot myself,” second-year coach Billy Gillispie said. “We’ve had some good moments. We’ve had some tough moments. We just haven’t finished up the season nearly as well as we would have liked.”
A fan behind the Kentucky bench held a placard reflecting the mood of the Big Blue faithful, who haven’t felt so blue in nearly two decades. The last time the NCAA tournament began without the Wildcats was 1991.
“Hey Billy. The Honeymoon Is Over,” the sign read. “Go Cats.”
Marcus Thornton scored 21 points and keyed a 10-2 spurt to enable LSU (26-6) to open a 14-point, second-half lead and nearly outscored Kentucky’s high-scoring tandem of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson by himself.
Patterson led the Wildcats with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Meeks had a season-low eight points—the only time he’s been held in single-digits—on 3-for-9 shooting.
Kentucky (20-13) entered the tournament feeling it might have to win it all to extend the string of consecutive NCAA appearances. But if Gillispie is feeling heat over the prospect of winding up in the NIT for the first time since 1979, he wasn’t letting on.
“I got married one time and that honeymoon didn’t last long either. For me as a basketball coach, I couldn’t care less about a honeymoon,” Gillispie said. “I’m concerned about trying to get our team better, and as we move forward that’s what we’ll do.”
LSU, which will face Mississippi State in Saturday’s semifinals, stopped a two-game losing streak that began after the Tigers clinched the SEC regular-season championship with a win at Rupp Arena on Feb. 28.
The Tigers accepted the regular-season title trophy before Friday’s game, retreated to the locker room and came out eager to start anew.
“That was then,” senior Garrett Temple said. “This is now.”
LSU led 28-23 at the half despite shooting 30.6 percent from the field and getting little scoring from anyone other than Thornton, who had 13 at the break, including 10 over the stretch in which the Tigers spurted to an eight-point lead.
With LSU shooting poorly, Kentucky managed to stay close even without getting its usual production from Meeks and Patterson, two of the top five scorers in the SEC. The tandem combined for 11 first-half points on 4-for-10 shooting, with Meeks—the league’s top scorer at 24.7 per game—not even attempting a shot in the first 13 minutes.
Temple spearheaded the LSU defense, drawing the difficult assignment of containing Meeks, who scored 24 in the Wildcats’ 73-70 loss to LSU at home. The 6-foot-6 guard made the Kentucky star work hard for everything he got.
“Jodie’s not the kind of guy who’s going to get frustrated. He’s going to keep working,” Temple said. “It was a little bit tiring chasing him around, but I knew that’s what I was going to have to do.”
Thornton, meanwhile, showed why he’s the conference player of the year. The senior from Baton Rouge, La., made 8 of 17 shots, including a 3-pointer that finished the surge that carried the Tigers to 58-44 lead with 5:48 to go.
Temple and Bo Spencer also made 3-pointers in the 10-2 burst. LSU didn’t score again until Spencer made two free throws with 1:37 left, but the closest Kentucky could get down the stretch was seven.
Meeks scored the first basket of the second half, then didn’t score again until sinking a pair of free throws with 1:22 to go.
“He’s a great defender,” Meeks said of Temple, “and they did a good job of defending me as a team. I had some easy shots that I missed that I usually knock down.”
Spencer finished with 16 points and Tasmin Mitchell had 14. LSU shot 52 percent (13-of-25) in the second half and 39.3 percent for the game.
The loss was Kentucky’s ninth in 12 games. And while the Wildcats wish they were in a better position heading into NCAA selection Sunday, they’re not looking down on the prospect for a NIT bid.
“It’s another opportunity to play. … We still have a chance to win something,” Harris said. “We’re going to play as hard as we can, like we have been lately.”