ATLANTA -- The start certainly wasn’t what Kentucky or its fans wanted, but after about seven minutes of watching LSU out-muscle and out-work the Wildcats, Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinal turned into a Big Blue highlight reel.
There were dazzling dunks, slippery steals and bodacious blocks that brought the Georgia Dome, disguised as a little Rupp Arena, to its feet, as the Wildcats thumped LSU 85-67.
“There for a while, I didn’t even realize we were up by 10,” said sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who had six blocks. “We were just playing with so much fun and energy that I didn’t even look at the clock. The game just kinda took care of itself.
“First fun game in a while.”
A team that entered the SEC tournament as losers of three of their last four and as former Top 25 members, the Wildcats (23-9, 12-6 SEC) met a tenacious, upset-minded LSU team searching for a way to creep into the NCAA tournament. While this certainly isn’t the Kentucky team that John Calipari or Big Blue Nation expected to see at this point, it’s one that gained a little more confidence as it looks to navigate its way to an SEC tournament title before dancing into the NCAA tournament.
But what changed for a team headed by five freshmen that had a knack for playing alone, rather than as a unit?
Something about a “tweak” that Calipari has mentioned but wouldn’t dive into. It was implemented during the Wildcats’ practice Sunday, but the mystery behind it remains just that.
Maybe it was to get guards, starting with point man Andrew Harrison, to penetrate more inside and kick the ball out, which became a staple Kentucky’s offense against the Tigers.
The emphasis on spreading the ball around and finding different ways to score opened the floor up for the Cats, as four of Kentucky’s five starters ended the night in double figures, including Harrison, who had 11 points and eight assists.
The Cats finished the game with 15 assists to nine turnovers.
Maybe it was collapsing on LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant on defense to frustrate him and destroy his rhythm, which the Cats did. They hounded him even more by going right at him offensively, eventually getting him in foul trouble midway through the second half before he fouled out late.
Maybe it was to communicate more and use each other as opposed to going at it alone in a game that this team needed in order to rejuvenate a program that has had a baffling number of personalities all year.
“Regardless of whatever you think the tweak was, it started on the defensive end and that’s what led to us getting easier baskets and us getting a big lead,” said freshman forward Julius Randle, who scored 17.
Whatever the tweak was, it worked for Kentucky and it served as a confidence booster for a team looking to make a couple of postseason runs.
What might be the most impressive aspect of Kentucky’s win was the fact that it had to grind this one out a bit during both halves. The Tigers (19-13, 9-9) opened things up with a 6-0 lead that quickly mounted 22-14 with 12:59 remaining in the first half, until Kentucky rolled off an inspiring 23-3 run to make it 37-25 at the 3:54 mark.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Randle said. “But, like coach says, when the raindrops hit your shoulders, how are you going to react? I think we reacted pretty good. We were able to bust it back open and ended up winning by 18.”
The Wildcats spread the wealth, as five players scored during their hellacious run, and put a stranglehold on LSU’s once-hot offense, helping them miss 10 of 11 shots during that span and forcing five turnovers.
“It just felt like new season for us,” said freshman guard James Young, who had a game-high 21 points, including 17 in the first half. “We put everything behind us. It started off 0-0, that’s what we feel like.”
There are two things to gain from Kentucky’s dominating win: There’s still work to be done, but this team looked a lot hungrier than the one that sluggishly closed the regular season.
And think of all the missed opportunities in this blowout. Kentucky missed 15 free throws and had a trouble hitting easy shots near the rim at times.
Despite the talent and athleticism the Tigers possess, LSU isn’t a tournament team, so the verdict is still out on how good Kentucky will look when it faces a team that will be playing later this month. But the selfishness and lack of identity that plagued this team all season vanished under the Georgia Dome lights for just one night.
The Cats must keep from reverting to their old, unsatisfying ways, but players say they’ve regained their focus.
This team is far from perfect and it’s probably going to need to play at this level from here on out to end things in a special way, but this team is maturing. It’s staying the course, regardless of its ups and downs.
“The biggest thing is we can’t be happy with it,” Randle said. “We gotta keep going and make a run.”