The big issue before Saturday's NCAA Southeast regional final between Kentucky and Louisiana State was which team was a more tight-knit group.

In addition, each spent considerable time praising the other before this fourth meeting of the season between the teams (Kentucky is 3-0). And each said the key to the game would be defense -- LSU's defenses that change like the wind against Kentucky's man-to-man.

Coach Dale Brown and players Don Redden and Derrick Taylor were part of the Tigers troupe that defeated second-seeded Georgia Tech, 70-64, Thursday night in the Omni. They had first crack today.

"I've spent my whole life motivating people," said Brown, "but this team motivates me."

Taylor, a 6-foot senior guard, had 23 points -- his second-highest total this season -- including two baskets in a row to tie the game at 56 with 5:07 left, and then another to tie it at 58.

"The man really believes in us," Taylor said of Brown. "I think what motivates him the most is that we really, truly love each other. This team has that gleam in the eye. It's hard to put in words, but we really believe strongly in each other.

"Like Thursday night, John Williams was having a tough night two for 15 from the floor, five points , but we were just telling him to keep going, keep playing. We really back each other, and that's the main thing that turns Coach Brown on, because he's a firm believer in unity and family."

Redden, a 6-6 senior guard/forward, led everybody with 27 points, including two jumpers 51 seconds apart to give LSU a 62-58 lead with 2:37 left. Asked what Brown does to motivate his team, Redden said jokingly: "That's top secret. If we gave that away, there's no chance we'd win."

"He relates things not so much to basketball but to the game of life," Redden said. "He uses different techniques to relate different things that are right for us at the time.

"Like against Memphis State which LSU beat in the second round , this guy who's a quadriplegic wrote in to say he's been an LSU fan all his life, and he was in the locker room. What it shows you is that there is more to life than basketball. He's more interested in teaching you about life. You're a person for a lot longer than you're a basketball player."

Brown said: "It's just that there's something electric you can feel. I told Derrick and Don on the way up the escalator today that you have to try to separate what's just words and what you really feel. They mentioned love. You don't say love flippantly, cavalierly.

"John was trying so hard to carry us. He was tying up on his shot. After the game, I walked in the locker room and a big bear, 240-pound John, gave me a hug. He said, 'Great job coaching, Coach, and terrible job playing, John,' Then he smiled. It's just that without that, we wouldn't be playing the way we are."

Like Brown, Kentucky Coach Eddie Sutton is a flatlander, having grown up in Kansas, three plains states south of Brown's North Dakota. Sutton doesn't gush with words as Brown does, but he did say he thinks his Wildcats have some of that cohesiveness themselves.

"We've been a team of destiny since Oct. 15 the first day of official practice ," Sutton said of his club, which beat Alabama, 68-63, in the other semifinal. All-America Kenny Walker led four Wildcats in double figures with 22 points as Kentucky beat the Crimson Tide for the fourth time this season.

Kentucky point guard Roger Harden averaged seven points a game during the regular season, and although his jumper has been off for much of the NCAA tournament, he was a key in two of the three defeats of LSU this season. His 25-footer at the buzzer gave the Wildcats a 54-52 victory Jan. 29 in Baton Rouge, La., and his 18-footer sealed a 61-58 victory in the Southeastern Conference semifinals.

"They know pretty much what we're going to do," Harden said of Kentucky's game plan, which is to go inside to Walker and Winston Bennett. "They've got momentum, and they're a dangerous team at this point . . .

"I think we've had the right chemistry all year. We've had some of the same things LSU players talked about having which helped them get here. Coach Sutton has brought out the best in a lot of players, meshed us together. We're behind each other and encourage each other. We've got good talent, but I don't think we have outstanding talent. But the intangibles make us an outstanding team."

"They talked about love over there," Sutton said of the LSU group at the other end of the table, "but I think there's a lot over here."