BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The student section of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center was packed more than hour before tip-off to witness LSU take on No. 1 Kentucky and the overall atmosphere was nothing short of exhilarating Tuesday night.
Like a Catholic mass on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday, tons of folks that normally don't show up piled into the PMAC, feeling obligated to be part of the momentous occasion. Officially, 13,977 tickets were sold, with 13,111 bodies in the building, as Johnny Jones' squad stood toe-to-toe with college basketball's most powerful heavyweight. It was the building's largest crowd since the arena was reconfigured roughly a decade ago.
"Deaf Dome" certainly roared early as Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey elevated for soaring dunks. LSU immediately led 10-2 early and it was clear the Tigers had come to play. However, the Wildcats' revolving door of future NBA talent and towering, menacing giants eventually appeared to thwart all of that Tiger energy and adrenaline. Kentucky's 38-34 halftime lead would soon swell to 58-45 at the 12:46 mark of the second half. The rout soon appeared to be on, as dunking on a 15-foot rim didn't seem to be an impossible request for the Wildcats' Willie Cauley-Stein.
But, a Karl-Anthony Towns technical foul for hanging on the rim would spark a furious 13-2 LSU run. The Tigers eventually led 69-66 with 3:52 left on the clock, but would never score again. Keith Hornsby's long, off balance three-point attempt with :03 left was too strong, as the clock expired on the scramble for the rebound. John Calipari and his club had escaped yet another hostile atmosphere and improved to 24-0 on the season with the 71-69 cliff-hanger.
It all added up to a thrilling, yet unfulfilling evening for LSU hoops. Jones' club couldn't have played any harder, basically counting on six players to battle Kentucky's endless wave of substitutions. Martin and Mickey proved they could battle the best big men around, combining for 37 points and 18 rebounds. Still, there was that empty feeling. As the crowd made its way to the exits, many had to wonder when the arena would be sold out again.
The stretch run of Jones' third year as LSU's head coach is approaching. His overall SEC record at this point stands at 24-23, with this year's team 6-5 and losing at Missouri, at Mississippi State and at home to Auburn. Those three teams have combined for a horrific conference record of 8-25. How did LSU drop games to these doormats, yet almost upset Kentucky? It's a question many Tiger fans have a hard time finding the answer to.
It's been six years since LSU reached the NCAA Tournament and it's simply time to go back. Last year, fans were told to accept and believe that a trip to the NIT was a success. I, for one, had a hard time buying that. And, there's no way anyone should stomach anything less than an NCAA berth this year. LSU has far too much talent to be sitting out March Madness again, as was seen first-hand Tuesday night. It may be impossible to match the enthusiasm or passion of playing No. 1 Kentucky each night, but moving forward, LSU must beat the teams they should beat.
Seven conference games and the SEC Tournament remain. Let's see what happens.