Rabalais: LSU atmosphere, O’Bryant too much for Kentucky

I don’t know where they all came from on this unusually icy south Louisiana night, how they got here, how they would all get home.

But as much as LSU fans often deserved to be questioned for not showing up to games this past football season, this hardy band of followers deserved their own game ball for braving the slick streets Tuesday to number about 6,000 strong inside the warming hut known as the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

The Deaf Dome? Public address announcer Dan Borne dubbed it the Ice Dome. Appropriate enough for a building that already looks like an igloo, but especially this time with the streets and sidewalks and bridges all over Baton Rouge looking like glazed donuts.

“It’s 25 degrees outside,” Borne boomed just before the tip. “But chance of snow?

“NEVER!” the fans shouted back, at least the ones not dressed in Kentucky blue (they were also strong in number and probably wondering what the hell the big deal was over a little ice on the roads).

Afterward, LSU coach Johnny Jones stood at midcourt, microphone in hand, and thanked the thousands who braved the elements. And thanked them. And thanked them again.

What his team did just moments earlier was thanks enough. The Tigers repaid their fans hardiness, their devotion, their death-defying, ice-challenged driving skills with the biggest win of Jones’ two seasons as LSU’s head coach.

The Tigers’ upset No. 11 ranked Kentucky 87-82, a margin of victory that didn’t adequately tell the tale of LSU’s victory.

The Tigers ran wire to wire with the lead, going up by as many as 16 points early 22-6, not allowing their edge to dip below 10 points most of the second half.

It was reminiscent of the times back in the early 1980s when Dale Brown had them drop a costumed Mike the Tiger out of the ceiling on Kentucky, rappelling down a rope.

On this night, an abominable snowman would have been more appropriate.

Instead, it was Johnny O’Bryant III who dropped his considerable talents on the Wildcats.

The LSU junior was simply dazzling. He charged inside to do battle with Kentucky dreadnoughts like Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle, human beings massive enough to draw small children out of the stands and onto the court with their gravitational pull. He floated outside for soft baseline jumpers. He swatted shots, grabbed rebounds, did everything but run the point.

O’Bryant’s final line: 29 points, nine rebounds, two blocks, one steal.

His point total was one off his career best established last year at South Carolina, but considering Kentucky is Kentucky, it was his finest night ever as a Tiger.

“I know a lot of people were doubting us because we just lost at Alabama,” O’Bryant said. “But from the upperclassmen to the freshmen to the coaches, we believed we could get this win.”

Nothing is overplayed more by athletes than the “everyone doubted us card.” But in this case, O’Bryant was again spot on.

The Tigers looked like they had burned their last bridge to an NCAA tournament berth with Saturday’s 82-80 loss at Alabama. At 12-6 and 3-3 in Southeastern Conference play, LSU appeared destined for postseason purgatory once again.

And now? Well, Kentucky (15-5, 5-2 SEC) is clearly unworthy of its preseason No. 1 ranking and talk that John Calipari could once again meld a dazzling array of diverse young talents into a national championship squad just by signing them to letters of intent.

But it is still a very talented team, one that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi felt was worthy of a No. 2 NCAA regional seed coming into Tuesday’s contest.

If the Tigers can win this game, they can win any game on their schedule, including their return trip to Kentucky on Feb. 22. Whether LSU can show the same level of fire and intensity it will take to put on a strong run that will get the attention of the NCAA selection committee remains a huge question mark.

But for this night, they were plenty good enough. For this night, they showed how good they could be with their season, their dreams once again on the line.

“Everyone needs big wins to get in the tournament,” said Shavon Coleman, who helped LSU answer Kentucky’s every run with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting. “That’s something we’re looking forward to doing, getting in the NCAA tournament, so a win like that was great for us.”

Great as the win was for LSU, the question remains should the game have been played at all?

LSU associate athletic director Eddie Nunez said the ultimate decision to play, especially once Kentucky made it to Baton Rouge on Monday night ahead of the storm, rested with the SEC office.

According to Nunez, the decision to move the game back to Wednesday rested with Commissioner Mike Slive, that LSU only had the power to move the tipoff an hour or two each way from its scheduled 8 p.m. start.

According to Nunez, the SEC saw no reason to push back the game with the teams and officials in place.

Asked if ESPN’s desires to keep a marquee program like Kentucky in a prime-time slot on its main network was a factor, Nunez said no, adding that there was a slot on one of ESPN’s networks before 4 p.m. Wednesday for the game to be shown.

However the decision to play Tuesday night came about, it’s a shame that about half of the 12,124 folks who held tickets (including the 3,500 students who overflowed their section) didn’t get to see this one in person.

Then again, the weather and what it took to get here for those who got here added a dramatic, “LSU against the world” backdrop to proceedings, and made a huge win for the Tigers that much more memorable.