Wenyen Gabriel's 23 points led UK to a win over LSU Tuesday night (Photo by Chet White/UK Athletics)

Wenyen Gabriel’s 23 points led UK to a win over LSU Tuesday night (Photo by Chet White/UK Athletics)

It was only 90 seconds into the second half of Kentucky’s game in Rupp Arena with South Carolina two weeks ago. Gamecocks guard Justin McKie had just sailed through the UK defense for another uncontested layup when a woman in the front row of section 230 said this, aloud, to anyone who might have an answer:

“Where ARE they?”

She sounded like somebody who had walked into her neighbor’s house, but couldn’t find anyone. Nobody home.

She was referring to Kentucky defenders. She was compelled to ask because South Carolina seemingly had open lanes to the bucket whenever the Gamecocks felt the urge to score. Nobody home.

The Wildcats outscored SC that day and they did the same thing to LSU Tuesday night, beating the Tigers, 92-85 in a game Kentucky led by 25 with 8:08 left to play.

It was as though the “re-boot” promised by John Calipari took hold only on one end of the court. The UK coach admitted it was incomplete, saying his team played at around 70 percent of what he wanted.

And 70 percent was roughly how long the Wildcats played, with LSU outscoring Kentucky 34-16 in the final 7:46. The Tigers threw in three-pointers when they were open. When they weren’t, they headed for the rim. Nobody home.

Bam Adebayo is supposed to be the rim-protecting giant the Wildcats were missing last season. But they’re still missing that presence because of the way he picks up fouls.

“Bam got his third foul and just stopped playing,” Calipari said, accurately. “He ran from layups.”

The Wildcats have some work to do before they head for Alabama Saturday

The Wildcats have some work to do before they head for Alabama Saturday

He wasn’t the only UK player whose defense was, at times, non-existent. Wenyen Gabriel excelled on offense (career-high 23 points, eight rebounds, a trio of three-pointers and two assists) but at times seemed lost at the other end.

Shots that wouldn’t fall for the Tigers in the first half (just 37.5 percent) found the net with startling regularity in the second half (20-of-32 for 62.5 percent). They took nine three-pointers inside the final eight minutes. They hit seven of them, slicing UK’s lead to six with 14 seconds left.

It was as though the Cats kept trying to take a knee and the Tigers were slapping the ball out of their hands before they could touch the ground.

“If I could practice tonight we would have gone three hours,” Calipari said. “I would have had them meet me at the gym at 10 and I would have gone three hours until people puked.

“That’s the old days. We can’t do that but we will practice three hours tomorrow. I told them if anybody says they can’t go then you won’t make the trip to Alabama.”

They leave Friday for Saturday’s game with a Crimson Tide team that booted a huge lead at South Carolina Tuesday night, then survived four overtimes and left Columbia with a victory that now gives them hope of an NCAA Tournament invite. Imagine what a victory over, say, Kentucky might do for them.

Tide coach Avery Johnson is a savvy basketball man. He was a college hoops nomad whose final season came at Southern University. His last game? A loss to Kentucky in the NCAA tourney.

Then came an NBA playing career, followed by an NBA coaching career and now, he’s in Tuscaloosa, trying to make Bama relevant again in college basketball. They have a big chance on Saturday, if for no other reason, UK still hasn’t figured out a way to protect the paint.

“I feel comfortable we’re on the right path,” Calipari said. And he may be right.

But he has three days to teach his players how to shut down that other path – the one that leads to uncontested layups at the other end of the floor, with nobody home.

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