LEXINGTON, Ky. — James Young slithered toward the rim, and LSU’s towering tandem of Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey rose to meet him.
Walling up on the left block, Mickey denied the Kentucky guard’s floater toward the rim.
Fate, though, wrote a tragedy for the Tigers.
Sliding down the lane, Wildcats forward Julius Randle snatched the ball and calmly laid it in with 3.6 seconds left in overtime to give No. 18 Kentucky a 77-76 victory Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena.
“That,” Randle said, “was the basketball gods.”
In front of 24,244 royal blue-clad fans, the hoop deities teased LSU as it tried to punch the NCAA tournament reset button against UK.
Instead, the Tigers trudged up the visitors’ tunnel nursing a deep welt.
“They had to go after the ball to make it happen,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “They just made too many winning plays.”
LSU made a few of its own, desperately trying to halt a five-game losing skid away from Baton Rouge. But the Tigers (16-10, 7-7 Southeastern) couldn’t hold leads in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime.
“That’s an NCAA tournament type game right there,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “That’s what it’s going to be like.”
The loss further dimmed LSU’s already-flickering hopes of snagging an at-large berth.
Knocking off Kentucky (21-6, 11-3), the No. 11 team in the Ratings Percentage Index, would have helped blot out three losses to sub-100 RPI squads.
“The season isn’t over,” said O’Bryant, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. “You’ve just got to keep playing and let critics talk, because that’s what they do.”
Issuing a scathing critique Saturday might have been difficult.
But Bluegrass State native Anthony Hickey tried to silence both those scoffing critics and those packed into Rupp’s rafters.
With the score knotted at 69, Hickey, who added 20 points to go with eight assists, came off a ball screen from O’Bryant on the left wing and shot over Randle to put LSU ahead with 2:45 remaining in overtime.
A trip later, he darted from the top of the key down the left side of the lane for a layup on an inbound play to push the lead to five with less than two minutes left.
“We had opportunities to take it,” Hickey said. “Just a couple stops that we needed.”
The Tigers, who held Kentucky to 41.8 percent shooting, dug deep. But gathering the misses proved a tougher task.
The Wildcats, who scored 24 of their 50 points in the paint off second chances, used extra possessions to swipe the victory.
After Mickey blocked a Young floater, Randle went to the line when LSU’s Andre Stringer hacked him on a putback, sinking both free throws with 1:41 to go to draw Kentucky within 74-73.
On the next possession, O’Bryant turned the ball over trying to save an entry pass from Hickey on the left block when he slipped trying to pivot.
“It bounced kind of a little too far for me,” O’Bryant said.
Such was the painful theme: The little bounces broke the Wildcats’ way.
A trip later, Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein swatted an O’Bryant shot in the lane, leading to a run-out for Young. Trying to halt the freshman, Hickey was called for his fifth foul.
Young, who scored 20 points, converted both free throws to put UK ahead 75-74 with 23.9 seconds left.
“I tried to jump for the ball, and they called the call,” Hickey said. “I don’t have no control over it. It’s just a solid play made on the ball.”
Stringer offered an impressive reply. Pushing the ball the length of the floor, the senior found a crease down the lane for a bank shot that put the Tigers ahead 76-75 with 11.5 seconds left.
But one more fortuitous bounce for Kentucky rendered it moot.
“That’s basketball,” O’Bryant said. “You’ve just got to live with it.”
Was Hickey seething? Not really.
“There ain’t no frustration,” he said. “We played great. We got better on the road. We lost on a last-second shot.”
With 1:45 left in regulation, Hickey swished a 3-pointer over Randle to put LSU in front 64-63, a lead that reached two points when Stringer split a pair of free throws with 20.9 seconds left at regulation.
Again, though, UK’s twin guards found a way to the rim.
Andrew Harrison, who led Kentucky with 21 points, knifed in off the left wing and drew a fifth foul on Shavon Coleman with 10.9 seconds remaining. He knocked down both free throws to tie it at 65.
“We felt good,” Hickey said. “We was right there.”
Indeed, LSU trailed only 35-32 at halftime. The Tigers, who shot 40.3 percent, reeled off an 8-0 run to take a brief 40-35 lead, and they hung around after UK popped off an 8-3 spurt to tie it.
Even though the outcome was the same, this clearly wasn’t the same LSU squad that fell at Texas A&M and Georgia.
“You battle,” Jones said. “Our guys played the game between the lines and weren’t affected much by anything outside of it.”
Still, the standings don’t factor effort into the formula. That prompts the question of whether any silver linings are gone with just four regular-season games left.
“It’s about gelling as a team at the right time of the season,” Mickey said, “and seeing what happens after that.”