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LSU's coach turns out to be wisest owl of them all

ATLANTA -- John Brady came into the finals of the Atlanta Regional perceived as the country bumpkin among the coaches in attendance. Granted, Brady had a talented team, one that appeared to find its identity as the season progressed. But how was he going to outmaneuver Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in the semifinals? And if he somehow survived that test, how could he possibly pull it off again in the title game against another coaching mind regarded as sharper than his own?

Well, Brady outfoxed them all, didn't he? The Tigers' ninth-year coach devised the defensive scheme that throttled Duke's J.J. Redick, the leading scorer in ACC history, as the Tigers ousted the tournament's top seed in the regional semi. And he came back Saturday afternoon with a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes game plan that devastated Texas in the paint and enabled LSU to pull away to a 70-60 overtime victory that secured its first Final Four appearance since 1986.

The reputation of Texas coach Rick Barnes, who's considered among the coaching fraternity's elite, took a step backward with this loss. The Longhorns backed off their strength, their inside game, and instead retreated to the perimeter against the Tigers. As a result, junior forward P.J. Tucker, their leading scorer, never got into the flow. Sophomore center LaMarcus Aldridge, an NBA lottery pick if he jumps, resorted to a parade of fall-away jumpers when he managed to get his hands on the ball, which wasn't often down the stretch. Aldridge finished with a season-low four points and got off only five second-half shots.

Talk about playing out of character. The Longhorns' other inside player, 6-foot-8 senior forward Brad Buckman, attempted eight of his nine field goals from three-point range after averaging about two attempts per game from beyond the arc for the season. Go figure. The Longhorns ended up firing 29 threes, just four shy of their season high.

Meanwhile, the Tigers maximized their athleticism by continually pounding the ball inside to all-tournament center Glen "Big Baby" Davis and freshman forward Tyrus Thomas, voted the outstanding player of the regional. It wasn't until late in regulation that Barnes finally wised up and switched Aldridge off Davis, who was using his 80-pound weight advantage and celebrated footwork to overmatch his longer, leaner and less aggressive rival.

By then LSU big men had developed a keen sense of empowerment. Davis had scored 18 of his 26 points before Barnes went to the fuller-bodied Buckman. Yet the coach wouldn't concede he'd miscalculated over the first 37 minutes by relying on guard Kenton Paulino to assist the 6-11 Aldridge in getting a handle on the 6-9, 310-pound Big Baby.

"We were trying to really help out getting Kenton down there," Barnes said. "They work hard at working that area of the floor because of the fact that they have got the athletes. And if you do try to help and then he shoots the ball, which he normally does, it's hard to get the back of the board covered on the backside because of their athletic ability."

This time the numbers really do tell the story. LSU outscored the Longhorns in the paint, 38-10, taking it straight at the top rebounding team in the country. Outside of the final minute of regulation, when they showed their youth with some curious shot selection, the Tigers seldom strayed from what they do best. They got the ball to roommates Davis and Thomas, who accounted for half the team's 66 field-goal attempts and were a cumulative 21 of 33 from the field while combining for 47 points.

"Sometimes we call each other soldiers, and soldiers never leave a man behind," Thomas said. "We both understood it was time to go to war and we just -- it was time to fight. And when he fights, I fight. And when I fight, he fights. The second half we knew we had to give it our all if we wanted to win."

The win vindicates Brady, who was asked when he arrived here how he could possibly match wits with the coaches he would face. Didn't he feel overwhelmed? Didn't he feel intimidated? The 51-year-old coach held his temper, saying he'd won a pretty good number of games against some pretty good coaches over the years. But there's no doubt he was relieved to have the validation of an appearance in the Final Four.

"You know, everybody gets fortunate in their lives and this is a great moment for me personally," Brady said. "But it's also a great moment for a bunch of guys who really deserve it with how hard they worked. Going to the Final Four, that's where it is. But for some reason this doesn't seem like the end of me."

"We are still not satisfied," Davis explained. "We have tapeworms in our bellies. We want to still eat."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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