Emotional as she is, Jeanne Kenney decided not to try to dedicate Sunday’s game to her late grandfather — the one whose gaze she would so often find in the stands, the one who not long ago actually kicked her in the backside for taking too many charges.
She tried that Friday at Missouri, the game she played when she couldn’t get home for Cliff Beaulieu’s funeral. The result was a less-than-satisfactory three-point, three-assist, two-turnover game in which she reinjured her foot.
“Tonight, honest to God, I tried not to do that,” Kenney said Sunday. “The best emotions were when we got the win.”
A win LSU got in large part because of Kenney. Questionable coming in and held out of the starting lineup, the junior from St. Michael the Archangel let the game come to her and came away with a career-best performance.
Kenney had 22 points on a marksman-like effort — 7-of-8 shooting, including 5-of-5 from 3-point range — as LSU stunned No. 8 Kentucky 77-72 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
LSU’s second straight home win over a top-10 foe — the Lady Tigers zapped then-No. 9 Georgia 62-54 two weeks earlier — put the team on the cusp of locking up an NCAA tournament at-large bid and getting to play in the first round at the PMAC in March.
The Lady Tigers (17-10, 8-6 Southeastern), who posted their fourth straight win, also made sure they will be no worse than the No. 7 seed at the SEC tournament, which begins March 6 in Duluth, Ga.
But that’s a ways off. Sunday was about not just surviving but excelling against a highly ranked team that handled LSU 73-60 on Jan. 27 in Lexington.
That LSU could win was in large part because of Kenney, who lost her grandfather Monday. Kenney planned to attend Beaulieu’s funeral after the team returned from Missouri, but a winter storm pushed the game back to Friday and made an early return impossible.
It looked for a time that Kenney’s foot would make playing impossible. But battered, as usual, Kenney refused to bow out.
“She told me before the game, ‘Coach, I can give you some minutes,’ ” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “I didn’t know it would be 20-plus minutes. We kept checking with her, and I said, ‘OK, walk the ball up. We’re playing zone; just hang back,’ but she made huge plays for us on the offensive end.”
The defensive end, too.
Hoisting up 3-pointers in rapid-fire catch-and-release succession, Kenney helped LSU build a 13-point lead before taking a 43-32 edge into halftime.
In the second half, a talented Kentucky team ranked No. 2 in the SEC in scoring at just over 76 points per game clawed into contention before Kenney pushed back. With LSU clinging to a 64-62 edge, Kenney took back-to-back charges from guards Jennifer O’Neill and Janee Thompson.
After Kentucky’s A’dia Mathies (20 points) tied it at 64 on a reverse layup with 4:09 to go, Kenney made the game’s biggest shot.
Spotting up behind a huge screen from 6-foot-5 forward Theresa Plaisance, Kenney, perhaps remembering how her grandfather urged her to hold her follow-through, buried her fifth and final 3-pointer from the right wing for a 67-64 lead with 3:50 left. UK never drew even again.
“I told her, ‘I’m going to screen for you; you get behind the screen and shoot it,’ ” said Plaisance, who had 20 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. “She said, ‘It won’t work; they’re trailing.’ But she did it and hit it.”
Bianca Lutley added 15 points for LSU, and Danielle Ballard had 10. The Lady Tigers won the rebounding battle 34-32, the seventh straight time they’ve done that, and shot an impressive 52.9 percent (including 7-of-10 beyond the 3-point arc).
Already down from 10 to eight available players, the Lady Tigers’ depth was thinned even more when forward Shanece McKinney (two points, six rebounds, five blocks) fell hard to the court with 4:42 left, slamming both knees to the hardwood. She had to be helped from the court and eventually returned to the bench but didn’t go back in the game.
Kentucky (23-4, 11-3) dropped into a three-way tie for second in the SEC standings with Georgia and Texas A&M, two games behind Tennessee with two to play.
The Wildcats, who finish at home next Sunday against Tennessee, need the Lady Volunteers to lose to Texas A&M on Thursday while UK wins at Ole Miss to have a chance at a repeat share of the SEC regular-season title.
But those hopes may have been undone by yet another loss at LSU. Kentucky is 3-13 at the PMAC and 4-8 against the Lady Tigers overall under coach Matthew Mitchell.
“We’ve got to deal with the facts of the game,” Mitchell said. “LSU played a terrific game. We played hard and battled back, but we’ve got to go back to the first half and figure out what not to do to dig ourselves a hole like that.”
LSU wraps up its regular-season home schedule at 7 p.m. Thursday against Alabama (12-15, 2-12).