ATHENS - Hey, it’s still Kentucky.
Sure, the defending national champions aren’t the dominant force they were a year ago. But don’t bother telling that to the Georgia crowd poured into Stegeman Coliseum for Thursday night’s nationally-televised matchup. They had the place rocking as the Bulldogs pulled away in the second half for a 72-62 victory.
“They’re still a great team, even though they’re missing some pieces,” said Vincent Williams, one of three Georgia seniors honored before the final home game of the season. “They’ve still got some top players on their team, so it feels great to win.”
It’ll be a few days before Georgia knows exactly what the victory means. The Bulldogs (15-15, 9-8 SEC) already had avoided the shame of having to play on the first day of the SEC tournament next week. Texas A&M took care of that with its loss at home to LSU on Wednesday, which assured the Bulldogs of finishing no worse than 10th. The bottom four teams in the league play on the tournament’s first night next Wednesday in Nashville.
But it does ensure that Georgia will finish no worse than .500 in SEC play, a far cry from where they seemed headed after a 1-4 start to league play. And there’s still an obscure scenario that could get the Bulldogs into a top-four finish in the league. It starts with them having to win at Alabama on Saturday on one day’s rest.
Meanwhile, the loss was costly for the Wildcats (20-10, 11-6). Despite their royal pedigree, most projections already had Kentucky on the firmly on the NCAA bubble. A loss at home to Florida on Senior Night and a one-day exit from the SEC Tournament could spell trouble.
“Are you kidding me? I think Kentucky belongs in the tournament,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “They have 20 wins already. I think the teams in this league are much better than they get from the national media. . . . And we’ve been a pretty good basketball team the last five or six weeks. I don’t think a loss to us should be considered a bad loss.”
As usual, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the way for the Bulldogs. The sophomore guard finished 24 points and 10 rebounds, which marked his fifth double-double of the season. On a night when Georgia honored three outgoing seniors, Georgia fans continuously chanted “one more year” whenever Caldwell-Pope came to the foul line in the second half, which was often. He was 10-of-11 on free throws.
There is increasing speculation that it might be worth Caldwell-Pope's while to enter the NBA draft after this season. Numerous NBA scouts were on hand Thursday night to watch his work against the Wildcats. Caldwell-Pope was not made available for interviews after Thursday's game and won't be before the Bulldogs play Alabama.
"I have no idea (what Caldwell-Pope will decide)," said his backup, senior guard Sherrard Brantley. "I’ve never talked to him about it. He never talks about it and I’ve never brought it up to him."
Nemanja Djurisic added 12 points and Donte Williams had 10 points and was 8-of-8 from the foul line. The Bulldogs made 27-of-34 free throws as a team.
Not coincidentally, Kentucky had three players foul out – Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Ryan Harrow. Goodman led the Wildcats with 20 points and Kyle Wicher had 12. Kentucky shot 37 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3-point range.
"I'm mad right now," Goodwin said. "There's no way we should lose to Georgia."
Georgia led by as many as 10 points in the second half. The Bulldogs went ahead 44-34 on Donte Williams’ alley-oop dunk off a feed from Mann. That capped a 7-0 run over a period a little over three minutes.
But the Wildcats came storming back. A Wilcher 3-pointer at the 7:45 mark got them to within 50-47.
That prompted a 12-0 Georgia run led by Caldwell-Pope and Williams, who combined for 10 of the points. That brought the crowd of 10,062 to its feet and a rout was on as the Bulldogs led by as many 14 points before it was over.
Thanks to Caldwell-Pope the Bulldogs carried a 31-26 halftime lead into the locker room. Caldwell-Pope made an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer for Georgia’s final points of the half. At least two other times this season Caldwell-Pope has hit a long jumper in the final seconds before halftime.
Caldwell-Pope’s 3 was one of five the Bulldogs’ made on nine attempts in the first half. Brantley had two and Williams had one as the seniors combined for 11 points in the opening segment.
Conversely, Kentucky was good on just one of its nine 3-point attempts and wasn’t much better from the foul line, missing seven of 10 tries from there. Hence the difference at intermission.