BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Frustrated by the way his undefeated Kentucky Wildcats were playing, coach John Calipari starting fist-pumping facetiously after LSU baskets and told his players he hoped they’d lose.
They almost did.
But Karl-Anthony Towns redeemed himself after drawing a technical foul — and the ire of his coach — for hanging on the basket. His go-head jump hook with 1:30 left and clutch offensive rebound in the final minute helped No. 1 Kentucky hold off the Tigers, 71-69 on Tuesday night.
“I’m proud of Karl because he came back and grew up,” Calipari said. “Now I doubt — ever in his life — will he chin-up on a basket, ever again. But that’s why I looked like an idiot on the sideline and why I refused to call timeout. I even said, ‘I hope we lose. Watch this!’”
Calipari explained that he wanted to make sure his team won’t lose elimination games in March over senseless fouls, so even as his assistants pleaded with him to call timeout, he just watched and joined in the ear-ringing frenzy at the sold out Pete Maravich Assembly Center during a stunning 21-2 LSU run that gave the Tigers a 66-60 lead.
“I’m not worried about losing,” at this point of the season, said Calipari, whose team improved to 24-0, and 11-0 in the Southeastern Conference. “This is about us getting better.”
As the Tigers stormed in front, Towns squirmed uncomfortably on the Kentucky bench, momentary regretting his lack of discipline.
“It was a momentum changer. I can’t be doing that,” said Towns, who finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds. “During moments like that you think about your brothers and how much they’ve given you. You give everything back. I was more than happy to repay my brothers’ efforts.”
It was only narrowly enough. LSU guard Keith Hornsby had a shot to win it in the final seconds, but his off-balance 3 bounced off the outside of the rim.
Willie Cauley-Stein scored 15 points for the Wildcats, who can tie a school record for the best start to a season by winning at home on Saturday against South Carolina. Devin Booker added 14 and Andrew Harrison had 13 for the Wildcats.
Jarell Martin had 21 points and 11 rebounds for LSU (17-7, 6-5), while Hornsby scored 17 points.
Early in the second half, LSU appeared to be struggling with Kentucky’s height, with Cauley-Stein dunking twice within a few possessions as the Wildcats built a 10-point lead. Harrison then drained a 3 to give the Wildcats their largest lead at 58-45 with 12:46 to go.
LSU called timeout, and responded with its big run, starting with a 3 by Josh Gray. Hornsby scored eight points during the surge, including a 3 and a fast-break layup off of Cauley-Stein’s turnover that capped the run and put LSU up 66-60.
“We’ve battled through some tough games this year and put ourselves in position to have a shot to win it late,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “If you play that way throughout, some good things can happen for you. We’re constantly growing, and I feel like we took some positive steps tonight. Unfortunately, we just came up a little short.”
Kentucky: Trey Lyles made his return from a three-game absence because of an illness. The 6-foot-10 forward played 18 minutes and finished with four points and three rebounds. … Kentucky has now won eight of the last nine meetings, with the lone loss to LSU coming last February in Baton Rouge.
LSU: Mickey now has 85 blocked shots this season with seven regular season games left. He blocked 106 shots last season.
Attendance was announced at 13,111 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the largest crowd since the 2008-09 season, when the Tigers sold out four times on the way to their last NCAA tournament appearance. When LSU opened up an early 10-2 lead, forcing Calipari to call timeout, the crowd was howling and retractable sections of the grandstand were shaking.
New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis, who won a national title with the Wildcats in 2012, sat just behind the Kentucky bench, wearing Kentucky blue basketball shoes and a gray and blue sweatshirt. Afterward he stood outside the locker room, offering congratulatory hugs to current players and chatting with Calipari, who thanked Davis for a text marking his 56th birthday.
“It was great. He was funny,” Calipari said of seeing Davis, then joked, “I told him, he couldn’t even have played on this team.”
Kentucky will host South Carolina on Saturday.
LSU visits Tennessee on Saturday.
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