NEW ORLEANS -- For all the pomp and circumstance, for all the aura and the backing of the Big Blue Nation, despite the parade of blowout wins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said he had butterflies.
Kentucky's freshman guard led all scorers in the No. 1 Wildcats' 60-51 quarterfinal win against LSU. But as routine as another Kentucky win might have looked, Kidd-Gilchrist said it was new territory for the Wildcats' young roster.
"It was our first tournament game," he said. "I was really nervous coming into the game, but I found myself."
That statement could describe Kentucky's entire team in a performance that started sloppy, but finished strong to boost the Wildcats into the SEC tournament semifinals. Kentucky turned the ball over nine times and shot 32 percent from the field in the first half against the Tigers. Against an LSU team playing to preserve its season, the Wildcats found themselves trailing for much of the first half.
"They were playing out of desperation, and our players are so young, they didn't understand," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "That's what's going to happen from here on out. Every game we play, someone's in desperation."
The Wildcats certainly didn't look like they understood. Super-freshman Anthony Davis picked up two early fouls and went into halftime with six rebounds and just one point. If not for the efforts of Kidd-Gilchrist, who got to the free throw line eight times in the first half, the Wildcats could have been in a much worse position than a 25-24 lead at the break.
"In the first half, it was Michael by himself," Calipari said. "It was Michael Gilchrist, or we would have been down 10 at half."
Kidd-Gilchrist (19 points, 9 rebounds) routinely cut through a physical LSU defense. He shot 5-of-8 on the day, and his constant driving buried Tigers forwards Johnny O'Bryant and Storm Warren in foul trouble.
"I had a mismatch down low, and I like being in the post. So that's what I did," he said.
Maybe it was watching the Tigers go on an 11-5 run to start the second half that sent the message. Maybe it was the realization that an upset was brewing, or the increasing frustration of a capacity partisan crowd. But with 16 minutes to play, the Wildcats bounced back. Led by a 9-0 spurt from Terrence Jones, Kentucky tore off a 17-5 run of play. The Wildcats' defense mangled LSU's Justin Hamilton in the low post, and their shots started falling.
"In the second half, we went in and said 'We need to take over and start getting the ball in the post, making open shots and always be ready to shoot,'" Davis said. "And that's what we did in the second half."
To their credit, the Tigers never went away. This same LSU team dropped a home game to the Wildcats by 24 points in January, but would not cave on the bigger stage. Anthony Hickey, who finished with 10 points, 4 assists and 5 steals, was a constant pain against Kentucky's larger defenders. Kentucky held the Tigers to a horrific 29 percent shooting, which made the game feel worse than it was. But the fact of the matter is, the final margin of nine was Kentucky's largest lead of the game.
"They did some good stuff," Calipari said of the Tigers. "They were ready to do some things. And I'll go back and watch the tape and see what adjustments, because people will be watching the tape saying 'This is how you need to play them.'"
If this was the first test of the postseason for the young Wildcats, they passed it. But in March, the next challenge is never far away.
"Good win," Calipari said. "Now we'll figure out who we're playing, get a good night's rest and get up at seven o'clock in the morning and start all over."