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BATON ROUGE, LA — Kentucky coach John Calipari was grateful for P.J. Washington’s forceful presence in the locker room and under the basket in the second half.
Washington scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half, and No. 17 Kentucky held off feisty LSU 74-71 on Wednesday night.
“He kept telling the guys, `Would you quit shooting jumpers? Go at this rim,” Calipari said of his 6-foot-7 power forward. “I’m happy for him. Somebody on this team has got to be able to step up and be able to tell guys more than just me.”
Kentucky trailed 36-31 at halftime, but Washington asserted himself in the second half with an array of power moves, getting free along the baseline for three dunks in a 3-minute span to help Kentucky move in front. He also blocked two shots.
“P.J.’s our power guy. He does a lot of dirty work in the paint,” said Kentucky forward Kevin Knox, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds. “He was going up and dunking everything. That’s what we need out of P.J.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander capped his 18-point night with two free throws with 16 seconds left for the Wildcats (12-2, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), who survived their first true road test this season.
Duop Reath had 24 points and 11 rebounds for LSU (9-4, 0-1), which missed two 3-point attempts that could have tied it in the final seconds.
“We didn’t have an answer” for Reath, Calipari said. “They weren’t even running things, just threw it in to him. … He dominated us around the goal.”
Tremont Waters had 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Tigers, but his attempt to tie the game with a late 3 was off-balance and way off-target. He said coach Will Wade had drawn up a good play which had worked in the first half, but the players failed to execute it correctly.
“There were 7 seconds left, so I tried to just draw a foul at the 3-point line,” Waters said. “We have to come out and listen to Coach while he’s talking in the huddles. … He told us exactly what to do.”
The ball deflected out of bounds off Kentucky, giving LSU 0.8 seconds to get off one more shot, but Brandon Sampson‘s right corner 3-point attempt bounced off the far rim as time expired.
“Kentucky’s length bothered us,” Wade said. “They’re coming at you a lot quicker. They contested. They’re longer. They’re bigger, and that hurt us.”
So did clutch shots by Washington and Gilgeous-Alexander.
Washington got the roll and the call when he collided with Sampson under the hoop on a fast break, completing a three-point play that gave Kentucky a 67-65 lead.
Shortly after, Gilgeous-Alexander hit a tough driving scoop to put Kentucky ahead 71-67 with 1:22 left.
Kentucky: The Wildcats did not block a shot or attempt a free throw in the first half, reflecting a style of play that was too passive for Calipari’s liking. That changed in the second half, when the Wildcats scored 30 points in the paint, blocked three shots and attempted 13 free throws.
“We got punched in the mouth in the first half. They were the aggressors and we let them attack us,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We had to come out in the second half and be the aggressors. … We did that and that’s why we won.”
LSU: Aaron Epps had 13 points, including LSU’s fifth 3 on 11 attempts at the end of the first half. But the Tigers missed their first eight attempts from deep in the second half, giving UK more chances to use its athleticism in transition. LSU came in 7-0 when leading at halftime, but protecting a five-point halftime lead against a team like Kentucky was going to require a better performance down the stretch.
Calipari said the flu hit his team and he limited time on the court for three regulars who were trying to play through it. Sacha Killeya-Jones had five rebounds and one basket in 12 minutes, Nick Richards had one basket in 10 minutes and Hamidou Diallo had seven points in 22 minutes.
“They got so winded they could barely stand,” Calipari said. “I appreciated them trying to play.”
Kentucky hosts No. 23 Tennessee on Saturday.
LSU visits No. 11 Texas A&M on Saturday.