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By Nick Gray | UK basketball beat writer
A tweak was all UK needed to get out of its funk, at least for one night.
The Cats’ modified offense lifted UK through a first-half deficit and continued to roll over Louisiana State University in the 85-67 SEC Tournament quarterfinal victory on Friday in Atlanta.
UK head coach John Calipari teased a new wrinkle in the offense, calling it a “tweak,” earlier in the week. The notable difference – planned or unplanned – was more inside-out passing on drives, especially by freshman guard Andrew Harrison, who dished out a season-high eight assists along with 11 points.
“He pushed the ball. That’s how we want him to play,” Calipari said.
Harrison’s passing was not only evident in his assists total. He took four shots total, which was half of his season-average. As a team, UK had 15 assists, which was the team’s second-most in conference play.
“We shared the ball. It wasn’t just Andrew. We all shared the ball,” Calipari said.
LSU exploded out of the game offensively, hitting 69 percent of its shots in the first seven minutes and collecting a 22-14 lead. Cats sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein made his presence felt on both sides of the floor from there.
Cauley-Stein blocked shots on three consecutive LSU possessions while the lead changed hands in a 23-3 run in a nine-minute span. His short jumper tied the game, and another jumper extended UK’s lead.
“My mindset was just go in try to rebound everything, try to block everything, and sprint both sides of the floor,” Cauley-Stein said. “If a ball came to me on offense, just try to go up strong and either get a foul or get it off the rim for somebody to rebound it.”
LSU junior forward Johnny O’Bryant had been a thorn in the Cats’ side in the teams’ previous two matchups, and it continued for a half. After the Tigers’ perimeter shooting went cold, O’Bryant attempted to carry LSU’s offensive load with 11 points. But foul trouble cut his second-half minutes short.
O’Bryant was called for his fourth foul with 13:20 remaining and sat on the bench for eight minutes while UK responded to an LSU run with a 7-0 run of its own.
“We were still close enough to where if we could keep it close until the five or six minute mark, which we did, we could put him back in,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said. “As aggressive as (UK was) inside going at us, I’m not sure how long he would have lasted.”
Jones sat O’Bryant until 5:20 to go with the Cats leading 67-57. O’Bryant did not hit another field goal until a dunk with 43 seconds left that affected only the final margin.
UK’s offense was running when O’Bryant was not in front of a predominantly blue-dressed crowd at the Georgia Dome.. The Cats posted their highest scoring total since scoring the same amount on Jan. 15 against the University of Arkansas. Harrison also had his best game in the assist-to-turnover margin since that game.
“Some of this stuff we should’ve done before, and that’s on me as the coach,” Calipari said. “But I think you saw a little different team today.”
The University of Georgia defeated the University of Mississippi 75-73 in the last quarterfinal to advance to Saturday’s second SEC Tournament semifinal against UK.
The Cats defeated the Bulldogs 79-54 on Jan. 25 at Rupp Arena without Georgia guard Kenny Gaines. Gaines is tied with guard Charles Mann for the team lead in points per game with 13.4.