ATHENS — Georgia basketball showed how good it could be and how far it has to go, all in the same performance on Tuesday night.
The Bulldogs built a 9-point lead over Kentucky in the first half, only to go cold in the second half and fade away in the final minutes, silencing their own frenzied crowd.
The No. 14-Wildcats (11-3, 1-0 SEC) rallied for a 78-69 victory over the Bulldogs (10-4, 0-1), pulling away down the stretch at Stegeman Coliseum.
“I feel like we just didn’t play with toughness in the second half,” said Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards, who scored a team-high 23 points and pulled down 5 rebounds.
“I played bad defense, we all played bad defense. We didn’t defend.”
Bulldogs coach Tom Crean said as much, pointing to Georgia’s youth and inexperience in SEC games.
“With young teams they start thinking more about the last shot, next shot, instead of the next stop,” Crean said. “I think some of that happens when you don’t have that catalyst on the defensive end that’s setting the tone and setting the table for everybody else.”
Crean said he would do his best to keep his team’s relative inexperience in mind when assessing the performance.
“It’s their first SEC game, ten guys are on the roster that had their first SEC game,” Crean said. “That’s perspective. And I have to keep it in perspective.”
Georgia played fearless early on, leading by as many as 9 when Edwards drove the baseline and threw down a dunk just before halftime.
“Tom had them ready like he always does,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Anytime you win on the road in this league, it’s big.”
The Bulldogs were up 37-31 at the break and the sellout crowd of 10,523 was rocking, anticipating another big win after Georgia’s upset at No. 9 Memphis last Saturday.
But Kentucky battled back in the second half, outscoring the Bulldogs by 15 as UGA had no answer for 6-foot-11 junior Nick Richards.
The Wildcats fans who found their way into the arena broke into chants of “Go Big Blue!” And their team did just that, outscoring UGA 24-16 in the paint in the second half.
Georgia forward Rayshaun Hammonds, a 6-foot-9, 235-pounder, could’t get anything going near the basket.
Hammonds, UGA’s top interior threat, had 9 points and 6 rebounds. But the junior was just 2-of-9 shooting, and only one basket came from inside the 3-point line. Hammonds fouled out with 1:09 left, the Bulldogs down 70-66.
The Wildcats also took over the boards in the second half, out-rebounding the Bulldogs 23-12 the final 20 minutes.
“They deserved to win because they dominated the glass, (and) we did not get very good defense from our better players tonight,” Crean said. “They don’t go away, they are incredibly physical and aggressive … they are quick, alert, quick twitch, active hands and long.”
The Bulldogs played fast, but not fast enough to keep up with Kentucky.
UGA grew sloppy down the stretch en route to 14 turnovers.
“We tried to make some passes that weren’t there,” Crean said. “A couple of our turnovers were flat out not forced.
“You add that up with rebounding and not making shots, that takes your spirit away on the defensive end. But that’s youth.”
Georgia returns to action at 6 p.m. on Saturday at No. 5 Auburn.
Georgia coach Tom Crean
Anthony Edwards, Rayshaun Hammonds and Jordan Harris
Georgia basketball boxscore vs. Kentucky