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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ben Roberts

John Calipari makes good on a lineup promise, and Kentucky holds off LSU for first SEC win

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Before his team took the basketball court Tuesday, Kentucky coach John Calipari said he didn’t know if it would happen that night or Saturday afternoon or two weeks from now.

He just knew it would happen at some point.

“We’re gonna break through, because of the team we have,” Calipari said in his pregame radio interview.

It’s too early to call what happened in Rupp Arena a breakthrough, but it looked like a building block for these Cats to become something more than they’ve been to this point.

Kentucky defeated the visiting Louisiana State Tigers, 74-71, Tuesday night, bringing ample energy out of the gate and holding on at the end for a win in its first Southeastern Conference home game of the 2022-23 season.

Calipari also promised before the game that his recent comments about shortening UK’s rotation weren’t just talk. He said Sahvir Wheeler, Cason Wallace, Jacob Toppin and Oscar Tshiebwe would be playing just about as many minutes as they possibly could moving forward. Those four players — along with Chris Livingston and Antonio Reeves — played pretty much all of the minutes during the second half against Louisville, and Calipari teased what was to come.

“The backups aren’t gonna get as many minutes,” he said.

They didn’t.

Tshiebwe and Wallace played the entire first half. Wheeler likely would have, too, if he hadn’t picked up his second foul with 2:39 left before the break. In all, Calipari played just seven players before halftime, with Daimion Collins joining the aforementioned six for some quality minutes off the bench. Adou Thiero and Ugonna Onyenso never saw the court. CJ Fredrick and Lance Ware were unavailable due to injuries. (Both are listed as “day to day”).

The lineup got even tighter after halftime.

Calipari didn’t make his first second-half substitution until Collins came in for Toppin with 7:45 left in the game and the Cats leading, 60-53. Reeves checked in for Livingston with 6:50 left.

Neither lasted long on the court, however, and Calipari went with his starters for nearly all of the second half. Tshiebwe and Wallace played all 40 minutes.

UK led for the entire second half, though LSU cut the Cats’ lead to one point with less than two minutes remaining. Toppin nailed a big 3-pointer from the corner to put UK up 70-66, and Wallace had a driving layup with 29 seconds left to give Kentucky a 72-68 advantage. The Wildcats held on from there, but just barely.

Wheeler missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Livingston fouled a 3-point shooter on the other end, with LSU’s Cam Hayes hitting all three free throws to make it a 72-71 game.

Toppin made two free throws with 3.4 seconds left, and LSU missed a final heave from the corner.

Whether or not the short bench is here to stay, the immediate result was positive for UK.

Tshiebwe had 19 points and 16 rebounds. Wheeler tallied 11 points, six rebounds and nine assists with just two turnovers. Toppin scored 19 points. Wallace added 14 points and four assists.

And Kentucky got a much-needed victory over a quality opponent.

Yale, which UK defeated on Dec. 10, was technically ranked higher than LSU in the NCAA’s NET ratings coming into the day — the Bulldogs at 59th, the Tigers at 75th — but this was the Wildcats’ biggest win so far this season.

Kentucky came into the game with an 0-3 record in Quad 1 games, according to the NCAA’s sorting system, losing all of those matchups — against Gonzaga, UCLA and Missouri — by double digits, including an ugly, 14 point loss at Mizzou just six days earlier.

LSU, despite its low NET rating, was 12-1 on the season before Tuesday night, beating then-No. 9 Arkansas last week and nearly climbing into the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll as a result of that victory. The Tigers were 26th in voting when the new rankings were released Monday afternoon. (UK was 29th on that list).

Kentucky (10-4, 1-1 SEC) now goes back on the road for what is likely to be one of the biggest tests the Wildcats will face this season. On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats will play at No. 7 Alabama, the SEC’s top-ranked team.

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