NASHVILLE – The looks on their faces as the game slipped away, and the tone of their voices in the locker room later, summed up the regret and frustration for Georgia. Both about this game, and where it leaves their season.
They played as well as they have all season. It still wasn’t enough, because the opponent was mighty Kentucky, which pulled away for a 93-80 win in the SEC semifinals.
Georgia, even with the loss, has put it all together, peaking at the end of the season. And it still may be too late.
“We played the best that we’ve played all year today,” senior guard Kenny Gaines said as he packed up his bag in the Bridgestone Arena locker room. “I put it all out on the line, and hopefully we put forth a good enough show for the committee so we can get in.”
A victory on Saturday might have ensured it. And for awhile, the Bulldogs seemed on the verge of doing it. Then Kentucky showed why it’s Kentucky, and Georgia was left with what head coach Mark Fox called “a hard-fought defeat.”
1. A FAMILIAR LOSS
This one didn’t end up resembling the 34-point rout that Kentucky put on the Bulldogs last month at Rupp Arena. This one was more like last year’s game at Stegeman Coliseum, when Georgia led most of the way, only to not have enough firepower to hold on.
Despite it being Georgia’s third game in three days, it played by far its best first half of the season, shooting 61 percent from the floor, including six 3s, and led by as many as 10 points.
Even after Kentucky rallied, Georgia answered, taking a seven-point lead with 12 minutes left in the game. But then Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe all hit big shots, and the Bulldogs couldn’t answer. Their field goal percentage slipped to 34 percent in the second half, while the Wildcats shot 56 percent.
“I feel like Kentucky’s a great team and they made plays at crucial times, and we didn’t make enough,” Georgia guard J.J. Frazier said. “That’s part of basketball. It goes like that sometimes.”
It also didn’t help that Frazier, the hero in Georgia’s win over South Carolina the previous night, turned his ankle and had to leave during the second half. Kentucky rallied and pulled ahead soon after.
“The break that we had is when J.J. hurt his ankle,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said.
2. PEAKING AT THE END
The loss snapped a five-game winning streak for Georgia (19-13), whose season appeared close to dead after a disappointing loss at Auburn late last month. Instead the team figured itself out; the team that was routed at Kentucky and lost to woeful Auburn was no more, replaced by one that led Kentucky most of the SEC semifinals.
“It is tough to have a really good run at the end of the season when you’re playing your best basketball,” said sophomore forward Yante Maten, who had a team-high 20 points on Saturday. “That’s not how most teams function, because a lot of them start to get tired and start losing. But we’re a young team and had a great two senior leaders that helped show the way. So it took us a little while to get to the exact point where we wanted to be. But I’m proud of my team for getting there.”
3. FATIGUE NOT A FACTOR
Players said the short turnaround — they beat South Carolina in a thriller that ended near midnight on Friday — did not have an effect. That was thanks to Fox’s liberal subbing strategy.
Fox platooned at several points in the first half, with Maten spending the most time on the floor but only playing 13 minutes. Reserves Mike Edwards and Kenny Paul Geno each played 10 minutes.
“Mark Fox had an unbelievable gameplan of what they were going to do to beat us,” said Calipari, who also praised the way Georgia attacked Kentucky inside and used pick-and-rolls to open the guards for outside shots.
Maten said he was actually more tired in Friday’s game. The subbing pattern left everyone fairly fresh in this game.
“It was a good gameplan, and it kept us fresh until the bitter end,” Frazier said. “Like Yante said, we just couldn’t get stops when we needed to.”
4. TURTLE’S BREAKOUT GAME
Freshman Turtle Jackson was a high-profile recruit but hardly played this season — until Saturday. The point guard played a season-high 15 minutes and had nine points, all on 3s.
“I’m just thankful,” Jackson said. “They always told me to wait for my time and keep pushing and things would start happening in the game. Tonight it kind of happened, but we fell a little short.”
Fox told Jackson and the other freshmen on Friday night that they had to get ready to play on Saturday, and not to play tentative. Jackson said he took it to heart.
“Coach Fox told us we were gonna run and play like it was the playground,” Jackson said. “That stuck with me, and I prayed about it, and I just felt like I was in the backyard just playing.”
5. POSTSEASON HOPES
Most analysts felt Georgia had to beat Kentucky to have a hope at an at-large berth, and may have needed to win the whole tournament and get the automatic bid.
But Fox, speaking afterwards, felt his team still has “a legitimate chance,” arguing that the non-conference strength of schedule (ranked fourth nationally) should carry large weight.
If the committee was watching Georgia closely for the eye test, the way it played Saturday may have helped, too.
“I definitely think we stated a case,” Maten said.
But there was also regret among the Bulldogs, who knew it was their own fault they’re in this position: There was the Auburn loss, and many other blown chances throughout the season. A few result changes (Chattanooga, Kansas State, Ole Miss) and the Bulldogs may have been safely in already.
“We kind of put ourselves in that position early,” Gaines said. “There are some things we could’ve done earlier in the season so we wouldn’t be in this type of tight situation at the end. But I’m still optimistic and think everything will go in our favor.”