Kentucky's second-half defensive collapse costly in one-point road loss to LSU

BATON ROUGE, La. — On a night when he once again put on a clinic offensively, Rob Dillingham instead focused on his defense. Specifically, the final possession of Wednesday's game. A play in which he admitted he "gave up," believing Kentucky basketball had escaped with a one-point victory over LSU.

Instead, the Tigers turned the tables, as forward Tyrell Ward scored on a broken play as time expired to send the No. 17 Wildcats to a shocking 75-74 defeat at the Pete Maravich Center.

"That was definitely on me a little," Dillingham said, before correcting himself and saying "a lot" of blame for the loss was on his shoulders, despite scoring 23 points — and, mere moments earlier, nailing a jumper that put UK on top by a point.

Ward's game-winning putback was the culmination of a second-half collapse by Kentucky's defense.

"There is scheme slippage, and that's what happens with young teams," UK coach John Calipari said. "We do have the youngest team in the country. That stuff happens — and it seems to happen at the wrong time."

So much for defensive progress.

After consecutive stout efforts defensively in wins over Ole Miss and Auburn, respectively, it appeared Kentucky would add another effort to that tally Wednesday, allowing only 27 first-half points.

The Tigers matched that number less than 10 minutes into the second half. And with it, what had once been a 15-point lead for the Wildcats evaporated.

Kentucky induced multiple lengthy scoring droughts from LSU in the opening 20 minutes, as the hosts finished the first half shooting 39.1% (9 for 23) from the field, making 4 of 11 (36.4%) 3-point attempts. But the Tigers flipped the script in the second half, exploding for 48 points and connecting on 48.5% (16 of 33) of their shots to stun the Wildcats (18-8, 8-5 SEC).

"(We) just needed stops," said Antonio Reeves, UK's star senior guard who poured in a game-high 25 points. "We needed to just focus in on locking in on the main guys. We kind of let go a little bit. They made a run. They made shots down the stretch and came out with the 'W.'"

Calipari thought the loss boiled down to a statistic that isn't reflected in any box score.

"Fifty-fifty balls cost us the game," he said. "It’s all we talked about: 50-50 balls. Not only the last play, the play before that. ... Don’t tell me about your offense. If you’re not going to come up with 50-50 balls, you can’t win."

The Tigers (14-12, 6-7) were well aware.

"That was the emphasis (LSU) coach (Matt McMahon) told us before the game: We've got to win those 50-50 balls, (and) we can't lose the rebounding battle, and I think we won both tonight," Tigers forward Jalen Reed said. "And we saw the results of that."

Just as the Tigers once more showcased the resilience that has become their trademark: They erased a double-digit second-half deficit for the third straight game. They fell behind Florida by 20 before coming up just short and losing by two points, 82-80, on Feb. 13. Against then-No. 11 South Carolina last week, LSU dug itself a 16-point hole before rallying for a 64-63 road triumph.

"So I told my team that at halftime: 'They’re going to make a run. Every game I’ve watched, they’ve made a run. Now you've got to make a run back,'" Calipari said. "But, we had been getting 50-50 balls. We reverted a little bit today. But you've got to give them credit. It was a great game for them and a great win. They (out)toughed us for those balls, which were the difference in the game."

The game's hero put it even more concisely.

"We just wanted it more than them," Ward said, "plain and simple."

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky's second-half collapse costly in one-point road loss to LSU