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March 14, 2014

Cats get off to fast postseason start in LSU rout

ATLANTA -- By Friday night, Kentucky was shredding LSU's defense and chewing up the Tigers' offense and looking every bit like a brand-new team.

But the fresh start -- the one that sparked the Wildcats to an 85-67 rout of LSU in Friday's Southeastern Conference quarterfinal -- started with some shredding of a different sort.

It happened back at the Joe Craft Center earlier this week, when coach John Calipari brought DVDs of all 31 regular-season games to a team meeting, and one by one, his players took turns sticking them in a shredder.

"Relieving," forward Julius Randle said. "And it made a lot of sense. Time to move on. It's a new season."

For one night, at least, Kentucky played like it.

The team that's wilted so often in the face of adversity faced an early 22-14 deficit and answered with a 23-3 run. The squad that's let teams mount furious comebacks saw its 16-point second-half lead whittled to three, then answered the challenge with a 24-10 burst.

"It says we're growing up, we're maturing as a team," said Randle, who was 4 for 12 from the floor but had 17 points and 16 rebounds. "It just goes to show that it's been a long, difficult season, but the biggest thing I can say is, I'm proud of my team. Because no matter what we've gone through this whole year, we've stayed the course. Just because we've been through all that this season, it was nothing new for us, adversity in a game."

The response was unlike what the Wildcats have shown recently.

"When it got to three, it was -- it was almost like something was trying to take over, like your mind was, like, 'Ah man, not this crap again,'" sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein said. "And then, like, you just battled out of it and didn't even realize that. There for a while, I didn't even realize we were up by 10. It was just, we were playing with so much fun and energy that I didn't even look at the clock. The game just kind of took care of itself."

Kentucky (23-9) buckled down defensively -- LSU shot 37.5 percent in the second half and 40.7 percent for the game -- and found a balance offensively, getting 21 points from James Young 14 from Aaron Harrison and 11 points and eight assists from Andrew Harrison.

Whether that was the result of Calipari's much-discussed tweak this week was unclear -- neither he nor his players would confirm the change, though dribble penetration and passes to the perimeter -- but the Cats certainly looked like a different club.

LSU had beaten Kentucky 87-82 in Baton Rouge in January -- a game that wasn't nearly that close -- and the Cats needed a tip-in from Randle with 3.9 seconds to play to win in 77-76 in overtime last month in Lexington.

And yet, when the Tigers topped Alabama on Thursday to advance to Friday's quarterfinal round, UK players were celebrating.

"We wanted to play them, really, because we knew we were gonna have to play, no matter what...," Young said. "They came out with a hot streak, and we knew we had to play and keep going."

And in order to advance to Saturday's semifinal -- against Georgia, a 75-73 winner against Ole Miss on Friday -- the Cats had to keep it up all game.

LSU made 4 of its first 5 three-pointers then made 3 of 14 the rest of the way. And even with that cold shooting -- and with foul trouble plaguing star Johnny O'Bryant III, who had 18 points and seven rebounds -- the Tigers whittled away at a 16-point second-half deficit.

Andre Stringer's layup with 11:56 to play cut the lead to 52-49, but Alex Poythress answered with a three-pointer -- "The biggest shot of the game," Randle said -- and Randle added two free throws and a dunk to stretch the lead back to 59-49 with 9:31 to play.

During a timeout after the Tigers cut the lead to three, Calipari told his team that adversity was hitting, Young said, and asked how they wanted to respond.

"We weren't gonna lay down, and we're not gonna lay down anymore," Young said. "Everybody feels like that now. We just want the will to win."

For one night, at least, Kentucky had it. It looked like a team that had shredded its way to a clean slate.

"Absolutely," Cauley-Stein said. "I think that's what the metaphor for (shredding the DVDs) was. We're starting all over. Whatever happened in the past is, you know, it's over. It's kind of a new season for us now."


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