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Still a 'work in progress,' UK suffers setback at LSU

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Dakari Johnson had a career-high 15 points and six rebounds in UK's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had a career-high 15 points and six rebounds in UK's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU students had good reason to stay home.

With a rare winter storm coating Baton Rouge, La., in ice, they could have hunkered down and skipped the UK-LSU game on Tuesday night. Instead, they filled the student section and were loud from buzzer to buzzer.

The Tiger team they were there to cheer matched that passion with their play. Kentucky did not.

"We're playing teams that it means something to beat us, and we just think, 'Well, I'm OK individually and I'm fine,' " John Calipari said. "And when you watch it you say we're not fine."

No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) fell to LSU (13-6, 4-3 SEC), 87-82. The Wildcats made the score relatively close with a last-minute 3-point barrage, but the final five-point margin was the smallest of a second half during which UK never seriously threatened.

"When the other team outworks you it's just what it looks like," Calipari said at a press conference cut short so his team could find a way back to its hotel with roads closing throughout the city. "And we made it -- it was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16 (in the first half), it could have been 30."

UK battled back from that big first-half deficit, closing to within two points with 5:25 left before the break after LSU led 22-6 at the 13:26 mark. The Tigers -- who shot 50.8 percent from the field and drained seven 3s -- had an answer.

"They were just playing harder than us," Dakari Johnson said. "They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of open 3s. We just broke down a lot defensively and they just played harder than us today."
 
Johnson was one of only a couple Cats who didn't deserve to be included in that group.

The freshman center checked in for Willie Cauley-Stein barely two minutes with UK trailing 7-2. His mentality was simple.

"We got down early, they outworked us and I was just trying to help my team win and get back in the game," Johnson said.

Along with James Young -- who scored 12 of his 23 points in the first half -- Johnson helped keep Kentucky within striking distance. Before he fouled out in the final minute, Johnson scored a career-high 15 points and added six rebounds.

"If Dakari plays like he's playing, he'll play the most minutes, which is what he did today," Calipari said.

Johnson also had the unenviable task of banging with Johnny O'Bryant. He was more effective than any of his teammates, but LSU's star junior still finished with 29 points and nine rebounds.

"I just tried to be physical, get on the offensive boards and try to get physical with Johnny O'Bryant," Johnson said. "But he's a good player. He was hitting a lot of good shots and I felt like I needed to do better defensively on him and that's on me."

By the time Johnson got his shot at O'Bryant, it may have been too late.

"Johnny O'Bryant killed us," Calipari said. "We started the game, I didn't want to trap. I wanted to see what could happen. Probably a mistake on my part. Should have trapped from the beginning of the game."

O'Bryant was not the only reason Kentucky lost for just the second time in more than a month.

UK struggled most of the way against LSU's 2-3 zone, managing just 43.8-percent shooting and committing 13 turnovers that led to 16 Tiger points. Julius Randle found little room to operate, scoring six points on 3-of-11 shooting.

"They played the zone; we were tentative," Calipari said.

LSU's zone came as somewhat of a surprise to Calipari since the Tigers have relied primarily on man-to-man defense this season. Neither team's game plan, however, was the deciding factor.

"Normally we're better against zone than we are against man, so it didn't bother me, but we weren't ready for the physicalness of the game, we weren't ready for the energy of the game, the viciousness of the game," Calipari said. "They beat us to every 50-50 ball, from the beginning of the game to the end, and that's why they won the game."

Troubling as that may be, it's not reason to push the panic button on the 2013-14 season.

The loss to LSU may have been a setback, but UK has made undeniable strides nearly three months into the season. After the Cats spend an extra night in frozen Baton Rouge and head back to Lexington on Wednesday, it will be back to work.

"So look, this team is in progress, a work in progress and I've said it," Calipari said. "It's all about a process. The process we're at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to really break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it today. So now we go back and it's the next game and we continue to work on what we have to work on for us."

 

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What bothers me about this team this year is that it is a lot like we were this time of year with last years team. We were a work in progress all year and ended up loosing in the first game of the NIT. It is February and we need to be more established team. It may be too late if we continue being a work in progress. I would hate to be in another NIT tournament because our progress never happened.

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