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Date story was published: Sunday, March 13, 1988

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Eric Manuel, practically a no-show Friday, scored a career-high 24 points yesterday.

Kentucky, as a team, had a similar rebirth. In disarray for stretches of the first half, the Cats rallied to beat home-standing Louisiana State 86-80 to reach the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.

"We had a terrible first half, going back to playing the way we played early in the season," Rob Lock said. "Shooting on the first or second or third pass. Being too creative. Maybe we were a little jumpy because of the magnitude of the game."

The second half, however, was so well played by both teams one neutral observer was moved to compare it to a Final Four game.

"I can't tell you how disappointed I am we had an altercation," Florida coach Norm Sloan said after yesterday's fight-marred second semifinal. "Especially after following as good a game as you'd want to see. A Final Four game. I got so excited I got cold hands."

Happy 52nd birthday, Eddie Sutton.

UK, 24-5, will play Georgia for the title (2 p.m. EST). Georgia outlasted Florida 72-70 in a game that saw two players ejected and two others reprimanded by SEC commissioner Harvey Schiller for fighting.

Manuel, who led UK's second-half revival, went from the ridiculous to the sublime in less than 24 hours. Against Mississippi Friday night, he took only one shot, missed it and went scoreless in 16 nondescript minutes.

His worst game?

"I'd say, yes, my worst," Manuel said of his first scoreless game since the Cats played LSU here Jan. 23.

And yesterday?

"Of all my games, this is the best," Manuel said. "I wasn't quite into the game Friday. Against a team like Ole Miss, there's a tendency to fall down. Today, I knew I had to prepare myself to play well."

Manuel's previous high was the 14 points he scored against LSU in Lexington last month.

The 6-foot-6 freshman surpassed that in the second half alone. He scored 17 after intermission, including:

UK's first eight points, which put a serious dent in LSU's 40-35 halftime lead. Twice Manuel brought the Cats within one with driving two-handed dunks.

A three-pointer with the shot clock inside 10 seconds that gave UK an 80-77 lead. He had attempted only two -- one since early December's Big Four Classic -- all season. One -- at Florida Feb. 20 -- had gone in.

"I didn't hesitate," Manuel said of the shot from the top of the key. "I looked up and saw nine seconds on the shot clock. I knew I had to put up a shot."

"It was the biggest shot of the game," LSU's Ricky Blanton said. "He misses and we score (Bernard Woodside hit a three-pointer that tied it with 1:28 left), the momentum goes the other way."

Instead, Rob Lock's post-up shot over Jose Vargas gave UK an 82-80 lead with 57 seconds left.

"I was lucky it went in," Lock said. "It was probably a good shot from their standpoint rather than Rex (Chapman) shooting from the perimeter."

LSU had designed its down-the-stretch defense with that in mind. The Tigers, 16-13, shifted to a triangle-and-two defense, assigning man coverage on Chapman and Winston Bennett.

Chapman (20 points) and Bennett (23) had combined for 43 points in the first 32 minutes. Chapman had five three-pointers. Bennett tallied a trio of three-point plays off post-up moves in the second half.

But Chapman and Bennett didn't even get a shot off in the final eight minutes.

"It pretty much took us out of it," Chapman said of the triangle and two, "but it's not a very good defense when you've got people like Ed (Davender), Eric and Rob." The three scored UK's last 17 points.

LSU sought to match Lock's shot with its own low-post basket. But Woodside's feed was too far in front of bullish freshman Wayne Sims and bounced out of bounds.

Manuel and Davender sandwiched two free throws around a bit of bad luck for LSU to clinch the victory.

After Darryl Joe missed a three-pointer, Lock blindly saved the rebound toward midcourt. Woodside stepped on the sideline as he retrieved the ball.

Joe shot UK into a 32-25 first-half hole. The senior guard blitzed the Cats with 10 straight points in 79 seconds.

Joe began the run with a three-pointer that tied it at 25-25 at the 8:44 mark.

Twenty-three seconds later, Joe pulled up on the fast break and hit another three-pointer.

Then, Joe deflected a pass for Chapman and sped to a driving dunk.

After a UK turnover and a television timeout, Joe drove the baseline for a layup.

Joe had 18 points at the half, but only five thereafter.

"Credit Kentucky's tough defense," Joe said. "In the second half, after I made a pass, they denied me the ball. They played great defense . . . superb."

The Cats will seek their 16th title in the SEC Tournamemt's 29-year history.

The task may be made easier if Georgia center Alec Kessler cannot play. Kessler was the Georgia player ejected in yesterday's fight and will be examined for a possible concussion, Coach Hugh Durham said.

Kessler is one of only two Georgia players 6-8 or taller. UK, of course, will have a decided height advantage.

If Kessler can't play, Georgia's only center would be freshman Neville Austin.

"It would hurt us a lot," Durham said. "Kentucky puts in Lock, then (LeRon) Ellis and (Cedric) Jenkins and so on.

"Neville just can't play all those guys for 40 minutes."