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Wildcats crack top ten, lead SEC; showdown with struggling LSU set for Tuesday in Baton Rouge

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky is back in the Top t0.

The Wildcats moved up from No. 12 to No. 10 following wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss last week. Kentucky (20-5, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) holds a one-game lead over Auburn and LSU in the Southeastern Conference standings,

Kentucky plays at LSU in a 9 p.m. tipoff Tuesday in Baton Rouge. The Wildcats had to rally from a 14-point deficit to hold off Ole Miss Saturday and survived with a 67-62 victory over the Rebels.

Although a close call, Kentucky was pleased to inch out a win on a day when Auburn lost a shocker at Missouri (85-73) and LSU fell to Alabama, 88-82.

“We won,” Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey said following the win over Ole Miss. “At the end of the day, no matter if you win by one or 20, as long as you win, we’ll take it.”

Nick Richards turned in another solid performance against Ole Miss on Saturday at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats are at LSU Tuesday night. (Photo by Tammie Brown, Kentucky Today)

Maxey said the victory displayed Kentucky’s desire to win despite making just two 3-pointers on 22 attempts and struggling with free throws in the first half.

“A big thing for us was knowing that we could still win not hitting well from the free-throw line,” Maxey said. “I think we only hit two shots (from long range) and they were all pretty much wide-open good shots that we just couldn’t hit today. But knowing we could still win the game by leaning on our defense and post players like Nick (Richards), EJ (Montgomery) and Nate (Sestina) and getting inside was a big step for us.”

Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee said the Wildcats are “tough and we are resilient” and have shown that during the past two weeks.

“We’ve got a don’t-give-up, refuse-to-lose-type attitude and that is a positive thing,” he said. “If we lose, it is just that we have run out of time, not because we let go of the rope. That is something that is hard to develop, but it’s a positive when you see your team has that innately. So it’s a good thing for us.”

Barbee also thinks close games will pay off for Kentucky, especially in the postseason.

“We would prefer them all to be 20- or 30-point blowouts,” he said. “It makes the bench a lot more comfortable. But no, it does, especially for the young guys. We’ve got a veteran group of guys that have been through it and know how to handle it. They have been carrying us through a lot of these situations, and it’s good to see the freshmen get the much-needed experience because once you get late, late, late in the season, the race for conference regular-season champion is going on.

“You’re playing for something this time of year. You get in the conference tournament, obviously, it means something. And then when you get to the NCAA Tournament, then you’re talking about true one-and-done scenarios. So, being in these close games are definitely a benefit, especially to our younger guys.”

The Wildcats have won four in a row going into Tuesday night’s showdown against the Tigers. LSU (18-7, 9-3 SEC) won its first eight conference games and defeated Texas 69-67 in the Big 12/SEC Challenge but have lost three of the past five games.

Despite the recent struggles, Barbee said LSU is still a team to reckon with in the league and is capable of pulling off a win, especially at the Pete Maravich Center.

“If you look at the conference and the parity in the conference, any given night there is not a lot of separation,” he said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any end of the floor, and it’s not like, all right they’re two (wins out of) five and three of the losses they’ve lost by 35 each. That’s not what happened.

“They have been in a lot of close games all year long in the conference. They have won their fair share obviously and naturally, it’s going to go the other way against you a couple of times. But they are a fantastic team and we know what a challenge it is going on the road, especially to a place like Baton Rouge, like the arena down at LSU.”

Barbee also isn’t concerned about the team’s recent shooting woes. The Wildcats made just two 3-pointers in the win over Ole Miss and Barbee said the Wildcats have plenty of time to recover.

“We probably spend as much time in our opponents’ building as we do in our own so that’s not a factor,” he said. “So, who knows what it is. But, we’ve got fantastic shooters and I think in the few home games that we have remaining, hopefully, we will start to shoot a lot better.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at LSU, 9 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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