Andrew Harrison scored a career-high 26 points in UK’s win over Tennessee on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK has won more than its share of games this season on the strength of rebounding.The Wildcats made up for what they lacked at times in perimeter and free-throw shooting with their ability to overwhelm opponents on the offensive glass with size and strength. Against Jarnell Stokes and Tennessee, the Cats got a taste of their own medicine.”They have great big men,” Andrew Harrison said. “Jarnell, he’s a great player, most physical player we’re probably going to play against. We just have to find a way to beat them in different ways.”For just the second time this season, UK was outrebounded. The visiting Volunteers held a 39-24 edge on the glass, outscored the Cats 20-10 in second-chance points and had more offensive rebounds than UK had defensively.On another day, that may have spelled doom for UK. But on Saturday, the No. 12/13 Cats (13-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) found a way to take down Tennessee (11-6, 2-2 SEC) in a 74-66 win.”Tennessee is not going to lose many in our league,” John Calipari said. “I’m just happy we don’t have to see them again until tournament time possibly, and I hope we don’t see them there. They’re a physical team.”UK overcame the Vols by maximizing their offensive possessions. With the offensive rebounds not going their way, the Cats hit 23 of 24 from the free-throw line, nearly 30 percent better than their average for the season.”We have guys who have great form and great technique,” said Julius Randle, who finished with 18 points. “I think it’s just a matter of time. Everybody can make shots and make free throws. It’s just a focus thing.”UK also shot 7 of 16 (43.8 percent) from 3-point range, outscoring the Vols by 15 points from beyond the arc. And while in past close games turnovers have been UK’s downfall, the Cats committed just eight. “We just made tough plays, thank God,” Randle said. “We played hard, we played together as a team and we made our free throws.”At least in the beginning, that physicality seemed it would be too much for Kentucky regardless, as the Vols grabbed a 6-0 lead and eventually led by as many as nine points at the 12:16 mark of the first half.UK went to a familiar source to rally from that early deficit. With Tennessee opting to guard Randle one on one, Coach Cal went to his star freshman forward. Randle responded with 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting before halftime, adding three assists, the last of which led to a James Young 3-pointer that gave UK a 34-32 lead to close out the first.”What happened was we played through Julius in the first half, and you notice we kind of put him on different spots out on the court and then told him to beat the guy on the dribble, and he created for his teammates,” Calipari said.Not wanting Randle to beat them, the Vols sent the double and triple teams he has grown accustomed to. That’s when UK found a novel way to win.Spreading the floor, Coach Cal went to Harrison again and again.”Julius had a big first half, so I feel like in the pick-and-roll I can get to the middle and beat the big guy on the dribble and maybe get to the lane and get fouled,” Harrison said.Decisively using the screen and attacking the Tennessee big, Harrison got into the lane at will and had his best game as a Wildcat. He had a career-high 26 points — 16 after half — on 7-of-13 shooting from the field and 10 of 10 from the line, adding three assists and not committing a single turnover.”He got in the lane; he made the right play; he had no turnovers; he made big shots, the runner, the pull-up jumper; and he ran our team,” Calipari said. “He played like a point guard. So he got better today, he really did.”Screening for Harrison most often on Saturday was Dakari Johnson, who stepped up in 16 solid minutes as Willie Cauley-Stein struggled to cope with the physicality of Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Johnson had no such issues, setting crushing picks that took Harrison’s matchup almost completely out of plays.”I just tried to set a hard screen, come up fast and just be a big screen so he could have isolation with the big men that’s guarding me,” Johnson said.Johnson had only four points and four rebounds, but they all came in an eight-minute second-half stretch during which UK turned a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead.”Well, Willie didn’t play as well as he’d been playing, and we went with Dakari and he was terrific,” Calipari said.The 7-foot freshman also embraced the assignment of guarding Stokes, who torched the Cats for 12 points and 11 rebounds in a dominant first half. Stokes still finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds, but his life was much harder with Johnson battling him in the second half.”He’s real strong and he’s so low to the ground,” Johnson said. “He’s different from me because I’m so high up to the ground. I just tried to be physical with him early to try to box him out.”Whether Johnson continues to emerge or Cauley-Stein regains the form that made it almost impossible for Coach Cal to take him off the floor remains to be seen, but the lessons UK will take from beating Tennessee will remain no matter what.”We’re not always going to be bigger than everybody else and we have to find ways to win,” Harrison said.