The No. 22 Kentucky Wildcats closed out their regular season with a 94-77 win over the LSU Tigers on Saturday afternoon to capture a share of the SEC regular-season title and improve to a perfect 17-0 at Rupp Arena.
By virtue of Texas A&M's 76-67 victory over Vanderbilt, Kentucky will enter next week's SEC tournament as the No. 2 seed.
Tyler Ulis was Kentucky's stabilizing force, as he compiled 14 points and 14 assists to help the Wildcats exact revenge on LSU following an 18-point loss on Jan. 5. But it was freshman phenom Skal Labissiere who stole the show, with 18 points (8-of-10 shooting), nine rebounds and six blocks.
In his final game in front of Big Blue Nation, senior Alex Poythress tallied 12 points, including a powerful slam courtesy of Ulis just minutes into the second half, as CBS Sports CBB on Twitter documented:
CBS Sports CBB @CBSSportsCBB
It's too easy for Kentucky. https://t.co/JMdfKpJWzP2016-3-5 20:27:59
Elsewhere in the big man department, Marcus Lee played the role of human punctuation mark with a slew of dunks via lob feeds from Ulis. He went on to finish with 12 points, while Jamal Murray dropped a team-high 22 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Murray has now scored at least 20 points in 10 straight games.
Ben Simmons stuffed the stat sheet with 17 points, 11 rebounds and seven steals, but he shot just 5-of-12 from the field in the loss. Tim Quarterman paced the Tigers with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting.
Kentucky and LSU traded buckets throughout the first 10 minutes of Saturday's SEC showdown, but the Wildcats imposed their will as halftime inched closer.
While Ulis put on one of his usual swishing and dishing clinics, Labissiere showed a serious boost in confidence, as he poured in several pick-and-pop free-throw line jumpers off pocket passes from the Wildcats floor general.
He also made his presence felt on defense with some huge blocks, including a vicious swat that thwarted an LSU transition attempt and turned momentum in the Wildcats' favor, as CBS Sports CBB on Twitter relayed:
CBS Sports CBB @CBSSportsCBB
You're cordially invited to Skal Labissiere's Block Party. https://t.co/MZGedeHUmU2016-3-5 19:39:13
ESPN Insider's Kevin Pelton noted Labissiere finally lived up to some of the potential that has prospective NBA employers salivating:
Kevin Pelton @kpelton
Seeing today why NBA scouts never completely cooled on Skal Labissiere despite his non-production.2016-3-5 19:55:58
Simmons helped keep the Tigers close for portions of the first half with some smooth transition finishes around the rim, but Kentucky clearly came in with a plan to sag off him in the half court.
Whenever LSU was forced to slow down and get into sets, Kentucky went under screens on Simmons, packed the paint and dared him to shoot mid-range jumpers.
Beyond Simmons' inability to convert open looks from outside the paint, the Tigers struggled to knock down threes as Kentucky extended its lead behind Ulis, Labissiere and Lee's playmaking ability.
Over the first 20 minutes, LSU drilled just 2-of-14 shots from beyond the arc, while Kentucky continually dumped the ball inside and hammered home lobs in a stark stylistic contrast that included some woeful passing by the Tigers, per ESPN College Basketball on Twitter:
ESPN College BBall @ESPNCBB
At half: Tyler Ulis - 9 Ast LSU - 1 Ast https://t.co/vm5cR40Bmv2016-3-5 20:05:21
All told, Kentucky went on to finish with a 26-9 advantage in the assist department, as it continued building some serious momentum entering the SEC tournament.
With Labissiere's stock trending in a positive direction, Ulis running the offense, Murray playing some of his best ball of the year and bigs like Poythress and Lee rolling to the rim with purpose, the Wildcats may emerge as darlings throughout the month of March.
The Tigers, though, do not have momentum on their side. Although they entered Saturday's clash on a two-game winning streak, they've now lost four of their last six overall and have bleak NCAA tournament prospects.
A deep run at the SEC tournament could shake things up a bit, but LSU is flirting with serious disappointment during what could prove to be Simmons' lone season in Baton Rouge.
"Today, I thought they were the aggressor," LSU head coach Johnny Jones said, according to the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker.
Meanwhile, Jones and Kentucky head coach John Calipari both had nice things to say about Labissiere, per Tucker and Kentucky's official Twitter account:
Kentucky Basketball @KentuckyMBB
Coach Cal: I've been hard on Skal, that's why I'm so happy for him https://t.co/NmzLsgwhWV2016-3-5 21:29:26
Kyle Tucker @KyleTucker_SEC
Johnny Jones on Skal: "That's the best I've seen him, obviously."2016-3-5 21:37:02
"I guess he must've hit rock bottom," Poythress said of Labissiere, per Tucker. "You hit rock bottom, you start to fight. You start to swim."
"How about Tyler? 14 assists and one turnover...If there's a better point guard in the country then show me," Calipari added, according to Kentucky's Twitter account.
Simmons, however, was not impressed with the speedy floor general, according to Kentucky Sports Television's T.J. Beisner:
TJ Beisner @tjbeisner
Ben Simmons on what makes Ulis great: "If you touch him, it's a foul."2016-3-5 21:37:16
"You gotta have a confident team going into that tournament," Calipari added, per the team's official Twitter account. "We have an empowered team."