LEXINGTON, Ky. – – After watching his fellow Kentucky Reservists shine when given the opportunity, Bryce Hopkins prepared his chance to make a difference.
Hopkins came off the bench to score a career-high 13 points, including 11 to power Kentucky’s 15-2 second-half surge, and Oscar Tshiebwe and Keion Brooks Jr. made late free throws to help the Wildcats n 6 to outlast LSU 71-66 Wednesday night.
The shorthanded Wildcats trailed 36-28 just after halftime and needed an offense in addition to Tshiebwe. Hopkins, a 6-foot-6 freshman forward, provided an immediate spark as he muscled in for the baskets and created chances at the foul line during the push. His three-point play gave Kentucky a 39-36 lead with 15:35 to go and came seconds after Tshiebwe caught Hopkins’ free throw and created two chances ending with Hopkins’ tip.
Hopkins was 5 of 6 from the field and had four rebounds in 16 minutes, just enough to give Kentucky a much-needed boost.
“I saw in the first half that we were playing a bit slow,” said Hopkins, who hadn’t played more than four minutes since Jan. 15 and was averaging just one field goal per game.
In the second half the coach (John Calipari) was saying we needed a bit of energy so that’s what I tried to do coming into the game. I just started bringing energy and contributing.”
Calipari added: “All I talked about was preparing for an opportunity. … You can listen to everyone telling you it’s everyone or the coach, or you can say when I have my chance, I will do what the team needs me to do.
Hopkins’ jumper went 43-38 and Kentucky (23-5, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) built a 65-50 lead late before LSU rallied to 68-64 with 33.2 seconds left. Brooks made two free throws with 20 seconds left, and Tshiebwe responded to Darius Days’ layup with a free throw with 3.1 seconds left to seal Kentucky’s second straight victory.
Xavier Pinson scored a season-high 26 points for the Tigers (19-9, 7-8) in their second straight loss after three straight wins. Eric Gaines added 11 points and Days 10 with eight rebounds.
Tshiebwe finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds for Kentucky, which played its second straight game without injured starting guards TyTy Washington Jr. and Sahvir Wheeler. Davion Mintz started and added 13 points.
MISSING PIECE KEY
The Tigers went the final 9 1/2 minutes without outstanding reserve forward Tari Eason after committing a foul. Eason entered the game averaging 16.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and had scored at least 20 points in the past four games with seven double-doubles overall. Eason finished with just five points and a rebound in 13 minutes.
LSU: The Tigers shot 48% in the first half making 5 of 12 3-pointers to build their lead, Pinson setting the pace. But much like their 77-75 loss to South Carolina, they couldn’t maintain a double-digit lead and won just 36% after halftime and 37% overall. They were also outshot 36-24 and outscored 11-10 on the offensive glass.
“It was a two-half story, and like the fifth or sixth game where we allowed 40 points in the second half,” coach Will Wade said. “They were very aggressive in the second half and we just didn’t match their aggression.”
Kentucky: Unlike the Alabama win, where shots fell and more filled the void left by Washington and Wheeler’s absences, the Wildcats had to squeak points. Hopkins not only worked for the shots they needed, but he provided a presence on the glass. The Wildcats again finished better than they started, beating the Tigers 48-35 after halftime and shooting 47%.
LSU: Host Missouri Saturday night.
Kentucky: At No. 18 Arkansas on Saturday in the teams’ only regular season meeting.