Kentucky bounces LSU in SEC quarterfinals

ATLANTA — Johnny O’Bryant III needed a bandage above his right elbow late in the first half.

Resting on his elbow in the training room, Andre Stringer quietly stared as LSU trainer Shawn Eddy taped an ice bag to his knee.

All over the locker-room floor at the Georgia Dome, there were wrappers for energy bars and supplements.

Fifteen minutes after trudging off the floor, the toll exacted by No. 2 seed Kentucky on Friday during its 85-67 victory against No. 7 LSU was clear after the Wildcats turned pent-up ferocity from a week of beating up one another into a statement game in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.

“They were fighting for rebounds, jumping over us, diving on the floor,” O’Bryant said. “They just were the tougher team tonight when it really counted.”

And, really, the Wildcats ditched their own aloof reputation to do it.

After two nail biters with the Tigers (19-13), the Wildcats (23-9) unleashed the kind of torrent the blue-and-white filling the dome clamored for with a 23-3 blur over the back end of the first half.

The thrashing started quietly with a layup from James Young, who scored 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting, to pull the Wildcats within 22-17 with roughly 12 minutes left in the first half.

Two minutes later, he took a feed from Andrew Harrison, one of a career-high eight assists, for a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 22-20.

Fittingly, though, the Wildcats, who shot 47.3 percent, tied it on a stickback from Willie Cauley-Stein — one of Kentucky’s 15 offensive rebounds and 21 second-chance points. Andrew Harrison then buried a jumper for a lead that reached 26-22 with 6:52 remaining.

The Tigers, who opened a blistering 9 of 12 from the floor, were stifled by the Wildcats’ extended zone defense during a 6:36 scoring drought where they missed nine shots.

The Tigers shot 40.7 percent, and got a double-double in the form of 12 points and 13 rebounds from Jordan Mickey. Stringer chipped in 14 points off the bench, too.

“The zone was pretty wide,” Stringer said. “We have so many shooters they have to play it like that. They did a good job of getting to our shooters and making it tough to penetrate.”

Inside, Cauley-Stein was a menace, swatting three shots in the first half, and grabbing six rebounds to keep the Tigers offense to a one-and-done affair.

The Wildcats clobbered LSU on the backboards — finishing with a 48-32 edge — in building a 42-32 halftime lead.

UK snagged 12 offensive rebounds in the first half, turning them into 18-second chance points.

“They’re very aggressive getting to the glass,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “If they’re going to miss shots, you got to make sure to get that rebound and hold them at a low percentage.”

Sure, Wildcats forward Julius Randle missed six of his first seven shots, but he wiped the offensive glass five times. Center Dakari Johnson, who emerged as a starter over the back half of the SEC slate, grabbed four of his own.

A jumper from O’Bryant, who led LSU with 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting, ended the dry spell at the 6:20 mark.

Yet the Wildcats simply popped off another 10-3 run over the next three minutes, one capped, fittingly, by a pair of putbacks from Johnson to make it a 37-27 deficit.

And Stringer quietly but clearly said the Tigers didn’t bow up.

“I don’t think we challenged them,” Stringer said.

Walking off the floor at halftime, the Tigers gazed off into the mezzanine of the arena, sucked in air and tried and appeared almost woozy.

A hot start, one that saw LSU can nine of its first 12 shots to take a 20-11 lead, was gone, answered with UK clamping down defensively.

The Tigers tried to carve into their deficit with a 13-3 run over roughly six minutes in the second half. Stringer drove the right side of the lane and flipped a layup high off the backboard as Randle was late to contest, cutting the Tigers’ deficit to 52-49.

But after Stringer’s free throw hit off the back rim with 11:56 remaining, LSU’s comeback wilted.

Alex Poythress buried a 3-pointer from the right wing, and Randle made two free throws and followed on an ensuing fast break with a two-handed dunk for a 59-49 Kentucky lead.

It was painful for LSU, a squad trying to keep its NIT hopes alive. The Tigers didn’t muster a dominant outing like the one they put on display just 22 hours earlier in dispatching Alabama in the second round.

Instead, they’re left with the welts, bumps, scrapes and anxiety that may come from learning Sunday that a season many predicted would net a NCAA tournament bid has ended.

“We wrote our destiny,” O’Bryant said. “It wasn’t our night.”