LEXINGTON, Ky. — Anthony Hickey squinted when the bright light of a local TV camera caught the sullen LSU point guard out of the corner of his left eye.
Perhaps the question proved equally jarring to the sophomore after Saturday’s 75-70 loss to Kentucky.
“Everybody knows how much you wanted to win here. How much does this hurt?” the reporter said.
The inquisitor probably knew the answer. He grasped fully that Hickey, who grew up a three-hour drive away in Hopkinsville, Ky., yearned for a victory. Who knows if he saw Hickey’s jaw clinch after the blueblood program that passed on a native son ruined those aspirations in front of a 30-member entourage of family and friends in Rupp Arena’s upper deck.
But the reporter needed a sound bite, and Hickey supplied 16 seconds in a subtle draw.
“It hurts for me because I’m from Kentucky,” he said. “But you have to go through these things to get where you want to go.”
For now, so does LSU (10-7, 1-5 Southeastern Conference), which again is alone in last place in the league after dropping another winnable game away from the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Their plight aside, the Tigers affixed their psyche to another notion: Their record conceals and lies. Increasingly, their season is conforming to long-declared outside expectations of a rebuilding process in Baton Rouge, so the Tigers stake out another persona.
“Our record doesn’t show the team we are,” junior shooting guard Andre Stringer said.
The logic follows simply. If LSU didn’t let a six-point lead melt early in the second half at Auburn on Jan. 9, they would have another victory instead of a 68-63 loss. Or if they had held fast Jan. 19 at Georgia, preventing the Bulldogs from a 5-0 run in the waning minutes of a 67-58 defeat.
If those games had gone LSU’s way, coach Johnny Jones’ squad would sit at 12-5 overall and 3-3 in the SEC — a game out of a tie for second place.
“We know we can be a better team than this,” forward Johnny O’Bryant said.
Instead, LSU awaits No. 22 Missouri’s arrival at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Tigers are set to get back leading scorer Laurence Bowers, who missed four games with a knee injury, and are confident in the wake of walloping Vanderbilt by 22 points Saturday.
There’s little doubt, too, that LSU missed a chance Saturday to further remove itself from dropping its first four SEC games. And there’s evidence to support the notion that their record isn’t fully indicative of the product on the floor.
Through SEC six games, the Tigers’ scoring margin is minus-7.7 points, which ranks 12th in the conference. Stripping out a 22-point beating by Florida, which is thumping conference foes by 26.5 points per game, slices the average down to minus-3.6 — or roughly two possessions per game.
“We’re a scrappy team, and we’re going to fight to the end,” O’Bryant said. “No matter what the score is.”
The assertion was true enough against Kentucky. After trailing by 15 points in the first half, LSU winnowed its deficit to seven points five times after leaving the locker room. Cutting to the rim after rolling off a screen, O’Bryant flushed a two-handed dunk after Hickey fired a pass at the top of the key to draw within 52-47 with 12:47 to go.
And after failing behind by 11 points with Hickey sitting on the bench for four minutes, LSU slashed it with a 9-1 run, culminating on a Shavon Coleman jumper to make it 66-63 at the 3:12 mark.
Yet an inability to put an inexperienced Kentucky squad in trailing position hurt LSU’s aspirations, Jones said.
“It could possibly be a little tougher for (the Wildcats),” he said. “It comes with their youth, and we were hopeful to put them in that position. But to their credit, they did an excellent job of preventing that and made some big plays.”
LSU’s last chance sailed over the rim and thumped off the backboard after Coleman attempted a 3-pointer with six seconds left with LSU trailing 71-68.
“We couldn’t get any good late shots or shots that we wanted in those last couple possessions, but you don’t want to force anything,” said Stringer, whose kickout set up Coleman’s jumper over forward Alex Poythress.
Even though his team took a 73-70 lead on a pair of free throws from Kyle Wiltjer with 3.1 seconds left, Kentucky coach John Calipari sensed a threat looming. Fearing Hickey’s shooting ability on the perimeter, he broke with his custom and told his players to foul LSU’s key cog if he touched the ball.
“The way that game was playing, he would have made that 3,” Calipari said. “There ain’t no question he would have banked it and that 3 would have gone in. So that’s why I decided to do that.”
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin obliged. With 3.1 seconds left, Hickey stood at halfcourt, bolted right and took a long inbound pass from Charles Carmouche. But he only got off two dribbles before Goodwin strafed Hickey’s arm.
Hickey’s first attempt in the one-and-one bounced off the back iron, and Poythress rebounded it with a second left before hitting two clinching free throws.
“This ain’t the end, and it’s still early in the season,” Hickey said. “We’re going to fight to the end.”