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By LARRY VAUGHT
When the final horn sounded, there was Julius Randle racing into the corner to celebrate and suddenly teammate Andrew Harrison was leaping on his back with a near choke hold.
But it was all good for the two Wildcats after No. 18 Kentucky somehow managed to overcome its own sloppy play at times to beat LSU 77-76 in overtime on Randle’s follow basket with 3.9 seconds to play Saturday.
It was perhaps the most jubilant moment of the season for the Wildcats — who came close to letting any chance of maintaining a high NCAA Tournament seed slip away with what would have been a crushing home loss this late in the season.
“It was really fun to win a game that way,” said Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 21 points, including 7-for-7 at the foul line. “I think this could bring us closer together. It will help us get closer because we just had to fight to get this win.
“We all enjoyed this. We were all happy for Julius. We just all want to win in spite of what some people might think.”
Kentucky had to survive a potential game-winning shot in regulation from Anthony Hickey, a Kentucky native who led LSU with 20 points and eight assists. Then the Cats needed Randle to go to war inside to rebound James Young’s miss and put in the follow shot — and then rejoice when LSU turned the ball over without getting a shot that could have won the game.
Randle joked that Andrew Harrison was “choking” him during the celebration, something that didn’t bother the UK freshman point guard.
“That was cool. He’s a big, strong dude. He’ll be okay,” Andrew Harrison said.
Maybe UK will be, too. There was James Young celebrating with teammates after the win and showing emotion he’s not displayed on the court all season. And he also didn’t shy away from inside contact when he drove inside LSU’s sagging zone on Randle. He was 5-for-9 at the foul line but had 20 points, four rebounds and one steal.
“I thought he did good stuff,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Again, here he is, he’s 1-for-4 from the 3. I’d like him to make a few more foul shots. If he goes 7-for-9 from the line … you’re the best shooter in the gym. How can you go 5-for-9?”
Young (17), Aaron Harrison (15) and Andrew Harrison (13) took 45 of Kentucky’s 67 shots, mostly on drives inside the lane. While Young and Aaron Harrison, both made seven, Andrew Harrison made just three and missed four straight shots late in regulation and to open overtime.
Credit LSU for doing all it could to keep the ball away from Randle, who was just 3-for-8 from the field but got the rebound and follow basket that he needed the most simply by refusing to give up on the play.
But Calipari said he continued to tell his players to drive, especially after LSU center Johnny O’Bryant got four fouls and was not contesting shots. He even yelled at Andrew Harrison once for taking an open 15-foot shot rather than going inside.
“We cleared out the court, spaced it out, said, ‘Forget about the offense, pass it twice and drive.’ That’s what we were doing.”
Kentucky won despite giving up a first-half lead and going just 1-for-9 from 3-point range. But UK hit 20 of 26 free throws and got 24 second-chance points, including the game-winning basket from Randle, to beat a team that physically manhandled UK earlier this season.
“You’re not going to play great every night,” Calipari said. “We missed a bunch of shots. We missed every 3. The game is never over until the horn sounds. That’s what I just kept telling them. Just play. But that’s an NCAA Tournament game there. That’s what it’s going to be like, that kind of game.”
Well, maybe not because at 16-10, 7-7 in SEC play, there’s no guarantee that LSU will even be a NCAA tourney team even if it has played like one twice against Kentucky.
Still, Calipari is not going to rock the boat, not this late in the season. He wasn’t going to overly complain about the lack of intensity and smart decision-making at times in the second half. He wants to focus on the positives and the win as he team tries to peak for March Madness.
He’s gone so far as to even have each player on the bench assigned a player on the court to talk to about energy. No kidding. That’s what he admitted after the game.
“We’re doing everything we can to get these guys to think different than they have ever thought in their life,” Calipari said. “No one’s ever attempted to do what we’re doing ow. All freshmen. All McDonald’s All-Americans. Bring them together, win a national title. Brought in a few players, but never tried this.
“I’m having to do stuff I’ve never done before. I had them take out the table in my office. I got a couch in there now.”
Again, that’s Calipari the master psychologist — and the same coach who complained about others “over analyzing” his team. But he’s right. This team can go from dominating to frustrating to jubilant in the same game.
But apparently the players are listening.
“Worried? Definitely. Coach was saying that we are not losing. When somebody says something like that, you have to believe it,” Andrew Harrison said.
Thanks to Randle, now they’ll likely believe any more after escaping with a win that maybe no one but Calipari believed they were going to get.