Playing without both of its primary point guards for the second straight game, No. 6 Kentucky handled LSU 71-66 on Wednesday to stay on No. 3 Auburn's heels in the SEC title race. Lead ball handlers Sahvir Wheeler (wrist) and TyTy Washington (lower leg) were both out, but the Wildcats got the win despite making just two 3-pointers and accumulating just three assists.
UK trailed 31-23 at halftime before getting a big second half from Bryce Hopkins, who scored all 13 of his points after the break while taking advantage of his increased role amid the injuries to Washington and Wheeler, who are considered day-to-day.
LSU started pressing midway through the second half, and it briefly produced some positive returns. As Wheeler and Washington watched nervously, the Tigers forced a couple of turnovers — they finished with a 23-5 edge in points off turnovers. But the Wildcats built their lead back to 65-50 with under four minutes left before the final LSU surge came up short.
Kentucky's late struggles with LSU's pressure made the final minute inside Rupp Arena more tense than expected and highlighted why the Wildcats do need one or both of their point guards back. But the majority of the second half showcased that how the Wildcats have learned to deal with adversity in a season that has brought plenty.
Here are the takeaways from shorthanded UK's win over LSU.
SEC title race heating up
The outcome improves UK to 23-5 (12-3 SEC) with games at Arkansas (Saturday), vs. Ole Miss (March 1) and at Florida (March 5) to close the regular season. With a strong finish, the Wildcats can challenge Auburn (25-3, 13-2) for a share of the SEC crown — although the Tigers would be the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament by virtue of a head-to-head victory. Auburn closes at Tennessee (Saturday), at Mississippi State (March 2) and vs. South Carolina (March 5).
Even if Auburn winds up as the solo champion of the SEC, there could still be a debate over who is truly the conference's best team. In the absence of a regular season rematch between the two teams at UK's Rupp Arena, it's a reasonable debate.
Auburn has been wonderful and would be a deserving SEC champion, but a rematch on a neutral floor in the SEC Tournament could be much different than Auburn's 80-71 home win over the Wildcats on Jan. 22.
That's because of how injuries have impacted the Wildcats this season. For a while, Kentucky's fragility looked like it could be its demise. All of a sudden, however, UK looks like a team on a mission and one with the DNA to overcome the challenges March will bring.
UK improving amid injuries
Take away the full context and there is nothing impressive from a distance about Kentucky's victories over Alabama on Saturday and its win over LSU on Wednesday night. Both were home wins against middling SEC teams who appear destined for NCAA Tournament bids but aren't among the conference's favorites to make deep March runs.
Kentucky, by contrast, is a projected No. 2 seed in last week's NCAA March Madness Men's Bracket Preview and ranked No. 3 in the NET. So why is UK beating Alabama and LSU on its home floor a warning shot to the country? It's because of how the Wildcats beat them.
Just eight days ago, this same Kentucky team put its aforementioned fragility on display in a 76-63 loss at Tennessee. With Washington limited to just 12 minutes with a leg injury, the Wildcats struggled and reinforced the well-established notion that they were a team with an equilibrium overly vulnerable to a single injury.
This is a Kentucky team that lost at LSU on Jan. 4 after Wheeler left just four minutes into the game after running into a screen and taking a nasty fall. This is a Kentucky team that lost its edge at Auburn after Washington left with an injury in the first half and then wilted when Wheeler left with injury in the second half after running into another pick.
It's also a Kentucky team that was taken to overtime at home by Mississippi State when Wheeler was out of the lineup earlier in the season. When one or both of their point guards were out, the Wildcats looked incredibly vulnerable. The Wildcats looked like a team ill-equipped to navigate the challenges March will bring.
Though LSU's intermittent success with the press in the second half on Wednesday reinforced that, yes, UK needs a true point guard, Kentucky's success showed that adaptability may be in this team's DNA after all.
Wildcats' next men up
Kentucky hasn't lost a game since Dec. 11 at Notre Dame that was not attributable in large part to an injury to Washington, Wheeler or both. But now that it has started winning even without them, it's a sign of the team's true potential.
Unlike Houston, which lost key guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark due to injury for the season, or Baylor, which has lost key big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua for the season, Kentucky's injured players are coming back. Washington and Wheeler are considered day-to-day. All indications are that they will be available in the postseason, if not sooner.
So if the Wildcats end up as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament instead of a No. 1 seed because they have more losses than Kansas, just remember the context for some of those losses. And remember Kentucky's biggest win. The Wildcats went to Kansas and won 80-62 on Jan. 29 when Washington and Wheeler were both healthy.
In an ideal world for Big Blue Nation, both will stay healthy for the rest of the season and never get in foul trouble, playing 30 or more minutes per game through every key contest over the next six weeks.
But Kentucky has proven now in consecutive wins over NCAA Tournament teams that it can still function even outside of an ideal scenario. That marks considerable progress compared to where the Wildcats were as recently as eight days ago, and it's why the Wildcats may end up better off in the long run for learning to play without their point guards.