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Notebook: Cats dominant on the glass again en route to title game

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Dakari Johnson had eight rebounds as UK outrebounded Georgia 36-21 on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had eight rebounds as UK outrebounded Georgia 36-21 on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA -- Even when things haven't gone as planned for a Kentucky team burdened with unbelievable expectations, the Wildcats have managed to stay competitive on the strength of one area.

"We have been a good rebounding team all year," John Calipari said. "When you put two 7-footers next to that basket, it's hard, and one of them is 270 pounds."

UK entered the Southeastern Conference Tournament second nationally in rebounding margin. The Cats have bludgeoned opponents with their size, length and athleticism, often compensating for other deficits by prolonging possessions with offensive rebounds.

After a 70-58 semifinal win over Georgia (19-13) on Saturday, it's clear the Cats (24-9) are making progress on the non-rebounding front. Andrew Harrison has posted career highs in assists in back-to-back games in guiding the offense and UK is seemingly making defensive strides by the day.

That doesn't mean the Cats are moving on from their bread and butter.

For the second game in a row, UK outrebounded its opponent by 15 or more, staging a constant backboard assault on both ends of the floor en route to a 36-21 edge on the glass. Julius Randle led the way with 11 rebounds, but every Wildcat who played more than two minutes had a rebound.

"We're really making a team effort," Dakari Johnson said. "It's not just one guy's assignment; it's all five people's assignment to get the rebound."

That was plain to see during a run that removed nearly all doubt from the outcome at a Kentucky blue-filled Georgia Dome as UK set up a rematch with top-ranked Florida in Sunday's final.

With the Bulldogs within three points with less than 13 minutes to go, UK scored seven-second chance points over the course of just two possessions, with Johnson getting it started by snaring a James Young missed 3 and putting it back in while he was fouled.

Johnson missed the free throw, but Willie Cauley-Stein kept the ball in the Cats' hands. Seconds later, Andrew Harrison found Aaron Harrison for a 3-pointer. To finish off the 7-0 run, James Young came flying across the lane to tip in another Aaron Harrison 3-point attempt.

"Coach just told us to crash the glass," Young said. "I saw the ball come off my way so I just tried to go for it."

The Cats have made that kind of play all season but never rebounded on the defensive end like they did against Georgia.

UK rebounded a season-high 89.2 percent of available misses by its opponent, allowing just three offensive rebounds -- two of which went out of bounds off the hands of a would-be Wildcat rebounder. Entering Saturday, the Cats had a defensive-rebounding rate of 69.8 percent, 119th nationally.

Johnson credits the improvement to the week of preparation that preceded the postseason.

"The practices we had before were really physical so I think we're doing a real good job just getting accustomed to the physicalness of every team," Johnson said.

Johnson's fire making him a favorite of fans, teammates alike

Even before Kentucky awoke and began to tap into its vast potential in the SEC Tournament this weekend, Johnson had evolved into somewhat of a fan favorite.

The 7-foot, 270-pound freshman, after seeing only sporadic floor time early, played with reckless abandon and infectious emotion in establishing himself as an important cog for the Cats.

It turns out it's not just the fans who enjoy watching him play.

"Dakari gets me extremely hyped when he plays," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "He bangs in the post and gets and-ones and goes psycho. I love seeing his faces when he does something or when he taunts the crowd or something. It gets me juiced. It just flows through everybody else by the way he plays."

In most other contexts, "psycho" has a negative connotation. But Johnson, told of his fellow big man's description, flashed the same toothy grin that appears so often when he's on the floor.

"I guess I just really get energized and I just try to attack the defense whichever way I can," Johnson said. "Every time I do something or my teammates do something good I'm so happy sometimes I don't know how to control myself."

Johnson -- young as he may be after reclassifying and graduating high school a year early -- has become an essential presence as the Cats have begun to hit their stride in timely fashion.

"If I do something or my team does something good I try to tell them," said Johnson, who had six points eight rebounds in 23 productive minutes against Georgia. "I try to get emotional for them and I just let them know this is the way we have to play all the time."

Randle joins elite company, but shooting struggles persist

Randle, the SEC Freshman of the Year, has had more than his share of impressive accomplishments as a freshman. On Saturday, he etched his name into the UK record books alongside two recent UK greats.

With his 11 points and 12 rebounds, Randle posted his 20th double-double of the season -- and sixth in as many games. The total ties him Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins for most in UK history for a freshman.

"It's a great honor," Randle said. "Those guys that came through here and have done excellent things. You see where they are now with their careers. For me to be in the same sentence and mentioned with those guys, it's a great feeling."

Great as the feeling may be, the struggles shooting from close range that led Randle to say on Friday he "couldn't throw a rock in the ocean" continued. He shot 4 of 10 from the field, well below his season average of 50.9 percent, and is now 8 of 22 for the tournament.

Asked of his slump, Randle was more interested in talking about his team's hot streak.

"This whole season is just really trying to figure out how we're going to play basketball, how we're going to get people involved and stuff like that," Randle said. "Coach has done a great job all season pushing us all season and staying on us and it's finally starting to click."

Given his track record, it's a safe bet to say the same will happen for Randle soon.

Cats unfazed by tournament grind

The question entering Saturday's game was whether UK would sustain the momentum built in a dominant win over LSU on Saturday.

The Cats answered that question affirmatively with their play, a fact that was made all the more impressive by the fact that they were playing for the second time in less than 24 hours.

"It's pretty nice, especially playing back-to-back games," Johnson said. "A lot of people would think we would be tired. But just coming out here and just executing what Coach wants us to do is really refreshing."

UK will look to duplicate the feat on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. against the Gators.

"We feel good," Johnson said. "We're just going to get a lot of recovery. We eat well, we sleep well and I think we'll be ready for tomorrow."

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