ATLANTA — The talk of a "tweak," as in improvement through imaginative marketing, faded. So did the talk of "bleak," as in a crash landing to the season. As John Calipari suggested earlier in the week, what loomed largest for Kentucky was how his Cats would handle adversity.
An 85-67 victory over LSU and advancement in the Southeastern Conference Tournament occurred because Kentucky passed the uh-oh test.
The moment that personified how Hemingway defined courage — grace under pressure — came mid-way through the second half. A 16-point lead and all the good that came from outplaying LSU suddenly seemed about to evaporate.
LSU reduced the UK lead to 52-49. Leading scorer Julius Randle had one basket.
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"Your mind goes, 'Oh, not this crap again,'" Willie Cauley-Stein said of this Kentucky team's aversion to adversity.
But Alex Poythress answered the call with a three-pointer from the left corner. It was his first three since Feb. 18 and only the second since Feb. 1.
Another stroke of luck like Randle's winning put-back against LSU on Feb. 22? Perhaps. But it steadied Kentucky.
"Oh, I'm confident any time I shoot a three," Poythress said. "My team needed me."
A rejuvenated Cauley-Stein anchored a defense that limited LSU to two baskets over the next 31/2 minutes.
The coast was clear for Kentucky (23-9) to play the winner of Friday night's Georgia-Mississippi game in Saturday's semifinals.
"We've been through adversity all season," said Randle, who shook off poor shooting to score 17 points and equal a career high of 16 rebounds. "It was kind of time for us to grow up, man up and just fight through that adversity."
James Young, who led UK with 21 points, distilled the talk of a "tweak" as nothing more than the coaches giving the players more freedom.
"We didn't run as many plays because we had to get easy baskets," he said. "... Just playing basketball, something we should have been doing for a while, and something we're going to do from here on out."
Johnny O'Bryant led the Tigers with 18 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds. Jordan Mickey added 12 points and 13 rebounds. Former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Anthony Hickey made only one of seven shots and scored three points.
As in the first two meetings, LSU got off to a good start. Shavon Coleman's two three-pointers prompted a Kentucky timeout 61 seconds after the tip.
Making nine of its first 11 shots, LSU extended the lead to 22-14 with 12:53 left.
Then Kentucky went on a 23-3 run. Young and Cauley-Stein led the way. During the breakout, Young scored seven of his first-half 17 points (more than he'd had in 19 previous games this season). Cauley-Stein contributed two baskets and loomed large as a defensive presence. His three blocks at halftime were more than he'd had in any of the four most recent games.
LSU made only two of 13 shots in a nine-minute stretch.
Jon Hood suggested Cauley-Stein's play (eight points, six rebounds and six blocks) was an accurate gauge on a Kentucky performance.
"He plays well," Hood said, "we play well."
Maybe most encouraging, Kentucky led 42-32 at halftime (its largest lead at intermission since a 42-25 advantage at Ole Miss on Feb. 18) without much offense from its leading scorer. Randle missed his first six shots (making him six of 25 against LSU this season) before his only first-half basket: a put-back with two minutes left.
"Dude, it's ridiculous," Randle said of four-for-12 shooting. "I've been missing shots I've made all my life. I've worked too hard for them not to fall eventually."
Randle noted LSU's interior size and muscle as a factor, but added, "Those are easy, easy, easy shots. I know eventually they will fall. I'm not worried about it."
A 25-17 rebounding advantage and only three turnovers in the first half more than compensated for Randle's quiet first half.
The second half opened smoothly for Kentucky. Cauley-Stein's flying fast-break dunk over Jarell Martin excited UK fans in the Georgia Dome. More importantly, it put the Cats ahead 49-33 with 17:06 left.
Then, inevitably it seemed, Kentucky suffered a lapse.
After scoring one basket in the half's first 4:26, LSU made four in fewer than 90 seconds. Two baskets in nine seconds — sandwiched around a UK turnover — reduced Kentucky's lead to 51-45 with 14:08 left.
LSU got as close as 52-49 on Andre Stringer's layup, which set up the test of how Kentucky would handle adversity.