LEXINGTON, Ky. — The celebratory sound thundering out from behind the closed doors of the visitors locker room at Rupp Arena Saturday told the story of this silly season in the Southeastern Conference.
“LSU! LSU! LSU!”
Yes, LSU, that’s who.
The Tigers won the SEC championship outright here, 73-70. Won it with a week to spare. Won it with ease in the standings, taking a three-game lead into Saturday — but in reality LSU won it with a series of white-knuckle victories that is seemingly without end.
In the process, the Tigers sent dysfunctional Kentucky further into the outskirts of Bracketville, beating the Wildcats at Rupp Arena for the first time in 20 years. But forget about the mediocre, melodramatiCats for now. LSU was the story Saturday, and has been the story of the SEC this season.
That’s the same LSU that received zero preseason media votes as the overall SEC titlist — they all went to Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky. It’s the same LSU that went 13-18 last season, 6-10 in league play.
But in reality, it’s not the same LSU by a long shot this season. This is Trent Johnson’s LSU, and that has made all the difference between winning and losing.
This victory was the Tigers’ sixth straight single-digit triumph. The total margin of victory in those games: 29 points. This season, they’re 10-1 in single-digit games. They’ve orchestrated more narrow escapes than James Bond.
“That’s one of the things I admire most about their team — they play constantly,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. “They play hard at the beginning, at the middle and at the end.”
And it always seems to work out at the end, in a departure from recent history. LSU was 14-21 in single-digit games the previous two seasons, which is one reason why John Brady was bounced as coach in February 2008.
The Tigers have flipped the close-game script under Johnson, a leading candidate for national coach of the year.