Maybe John Calipari’s tweak amounted to simply telling Willie Cauley-Stein to turn up the intensity.
Kentucky reversed its late-season slide with an 85-67 victory over LSU in the SEC tournament quarterfinals Friday night at the Georgia Dome. Cauley-Stein, the Wildcats’ springy center, sparked the romp with six blocked shots, eight points, five rebounds and loads of energy.
“My mindset was to go out and try to rebound everything and block everything and sprint the floor,” Cauley-Stein said.
No. 2-seed Kentucky (23-9) advanced to the semifinals Saturday. The Wildcats will play the winner of the late quarterfinal game between third-seeded Georgia and sixth-seeded Ole Miss.
It was an empathic turnaround for the Wildcats. They lost three of their last four regular-season games to become the first preseason No. 1 team to drop out of the Associated Press poll in the same season since Indiana in 1979-80.
Calipari said he “tweaked” the team’s strategy before the tournament and that the changes made for a “different feel” with the team. Calipari still wouldn’t say what he changed, but results suggest something clicked for Kentucky.
“I’m really proud of the guys and how they performed,” Calipari said. “They responded; they listened. They said, ‘Tell us what to do.’”
Kentucky was much better in its third game against the Tigers this season.
LSU led from start to finish in a 87-82 victory Jan. 28 in Baton Rouge. The Wildcats won the rematch 77-76 in Lexington on Feb. 22 when a blocked shot deflected to Julius Randle, who scored with 3.9 seconds left in overtime.
The Wildcats didn’t need a lucky break to beat the Tigers (19-13) again. They outmuscled their big men using Cauley-Stein, Randle and Dakari Johnson.
Randle was just 4-of-12 from the field, but collected 10 rebounds and scored nine of his 16 points on free throws. Johnson had 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Part of Kentucky’s change in approach involved more physical practices before the tournament. That work paid off.
“We did a lot of body-to-body contact in all of our drills, not just one or two,” Cauley-Stein said. “From the beginning of practice to the end it was bodying each other. We just had to try to play through it.”
LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant had 29 points and nine rebounds in LSU’s victory over Kentucky in Baton Rouge. He had 18 points and seven rebounds Friday, but just seven points and two rebounds after halftime.
The Wildcats took control with a 23-3 run in the first half. Cauley-Stein had two blocked shots, including a stuff of O’Bryant near the rim, to give Kentucky a needed defensive jolt during a 12-0 spurt.
“He’s long, a great shot-blocker in there,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of Cauley-Stein. “He can change the game.”
By the time Kentucky’s barrage was over, it had turned an eight-point deficit into a 37-25 lead with four minutes until halftime. Cauley-Stein’s soaring transition dunk gave them a 49-33 lead early in the second half.
LSU didn’t fold, though. Andre Stringer’s 3-pointer started a 16-3 run that cut the deficit to 52-49. Kentucky scored the next seven points and then pushed its lead back to 67-55 on Aaron Harrison’s 3-pointer with 5:55 to play.
Kentucky pulled away from there.
“They could have gotten rattled, but they didn’t,” Calipari said of his players. “That showed me a lot.”