Cats Withstand Georgia, Advance to SEC Title Game
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Georgia’s season was on the line, and the Bulldogs were playing like it.
They hit big shot after big shot, attacked the offensive glass with reckless abandon and never buckled in front of a crowd that made Bridgestone Arena feel more like Rupp Arena.
But Kentucky just kept on coming.
“That was a war,” head coach John Calipari said. “We got down, and we didn’t stop. We kept playing. And they didn’t go away. We had to make big plays and big rebounds down the stretch to even think about beating them.”
Facing a test the likes of which they’ll surely face again in the NCAA Tournament, the Cats absorbed punch after punch, particularly in the Bulldogs’ hot-shooting first half. Georgia built a lead that reached double digits in the opening half and seven points in the second, but UK had all the answers in a 93-80 win in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
“Georgia’s a good team,” Charles Matthews said. “They got so much better since the first time we played them. In my opinion, they’re definitely an NCAA Tournament team from what I saw. It just shows the growth in our team. We were able to get hit in the mouth – we were down 10, I think – and we were still able to keep our composure and come back and win the game.”
On an afternoon when UK’s defense – which has come on strong in the Cats’ late-season surge – wasn’t getting the job done, especially early, a coldly efficient offensive performance won the day. UK scored 1.43 points per possession, a total surpassed this season only by its quarterfinal win over Alabama.
In the first half, it was Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray carrying a load reminiscent to the one they had to carry early in the season. The two All-American guards combined for 31 points in the first 20 minutes, and were the only thing standing between UK and an insurmountable deficit.
After halftime, Ulis and Murray got the support they needed. And in the end, five Wildcats scored in double figures, led of course by 26 from Murray and 25 from Ulis.
“That’s what we do,” Marcus Lee said. “We kind of try to figure out the different ways to score and just got it done. We’re not set in stone of who’s supposed to score and who’s supposed to get things done. We just try to help each other as much as we can.”
Alex Poythress bounced back from a two-point, zero-rebound, two-foul first half to score eight in the second half and provide a much-needed scoring presence in the post.
“It just shows you that the game is 40 minutes,” Poythress said. “You gotta keep on fighting through, keep on playing, and just keep on pushing through it. If you don’t start off good, you got 30 more minutes left in the game, so correct it and fix it.”
Isaiah Briscoe was on the receiving end of a halftime talking-to from Coach Cal and responded to play arguably his best half of the season to close it out. He had eight points and four rebounds in the second half and added tireless defense against a Georgia backcourt that had its way for much of the game.
“As a coach, he demands the best out of you,” Briscoe said. “And that's all he did. I appreciate him for pushing me and to being somebody that obviously I didn't want to be at the time in the first half. But in the second half, he got the best out of me, and I performed.”
Derek Willis also overcame first-half foul trouble with nine points, five rebounds and four blocks after the break, while Charles Matthews provided a badly needed energy boost off the bench.
“C-Matt was huge,” Lee said. “He absolutely killed it today. We loved that he came in with energy, enthusiasm and was ready to play.”
Parts functioning as a well-oiled machine, UK eventually broke through with a back-breaking run of its most efficient offense of the afternoon. Starting as the Cats faced a 67-63 deficit with less than 10 minutes to go, UK scored on eight straight possessions and outscored Georgia 18-7.
Four different players scored during the stretch and UK turned a four-point deficit into a seven-point lead that Georgia was unable to overcome.
“The attitude was great,” Alex Poythress said. “We’re built for this. We needed a tough game like this that we had to go back and forth, down a little bit, a little adversity. I felt like we responded real well.”
In doing so, UK clinched its sixth trip to the SEC Tournament championship game in Calipari’s seven seasons. The game – which will tip at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday – will pit the league’s two regular-season co-champions against one another, a rematch of a Feb. 20 matchup Texas A&M won in bizarre, buzzer-beating fashion.
“This is a team that, coming in, that we have to respect because, going down to Texas A&M, they beat us the first time,” Briscoe said. “If we play the way we played today and everybody clicks as a team, I think that we can come out with the win.”