By Joe Cox
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Kentucky Wildcats flipped the script on their recent form in a 71-60 SEC tournament quarterfinal victory over Georgia on Friday afternoon, March 10, at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. For a Wildcat team that had struggled badly to open games, but often surged ahead late, Kentucky (27-5) jumped out to a quick start and then held off a pesky Georgia (19-14) team to advance to Saturday’s semifinal against the winner of No. 4 seed South Carolina and No. 5 seed Alabama.
UK opened up a 10-2 advantage in the game’s first five minutes, led by five points from All-SEC first-team guard De’Aaron Fox. The freshman guard drilled a three-point shot and drove for a lay-in during the pivotal run to open the game, on his way to tying for high scoring honors with 20 points. Kentucky stretched its first half lead to 13 points on two occasions, before Fox and fellow freshmen Malik Monk and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo were forced to the bench by early foul trouble. Georgia trimmed the lead to 32-25 at halftime.
Kentucky began the second half with another run, this one an 18-7 spurt covering the first 10 minutes of the second half, and stretching UK’s lead as far as 18 points at 50-32. A forceful dunk from Adebayo capped the run. From there, Kentucky successfully held off Georgia, which never crawled closer than a ten-point gap.
John Calipari was pleased with Kentucky’s effort. “This team has learned how to play down 15. They’ve learned how to play and grind it out, up 15. There are times when we’re inconsistent, and that’s based on 18, 19-year-olds.”
The majority of Calipari’s praise was for Briscoe, who also scored 20 points, and added six rebounds. Briscoe was credited by his coach for making his layups and running the team. “These guys know, in a foxhole, dude is coming out fighting,” Calipari said of the sophomore guard.
In addition to Kentucky’s two high-scoring guards, Adebayo chipped in with 13 points and 10 rebounds. This production helped offset a mere two points from SEC regular season leading scorer Malik Monk, who Calipari admitted to challenging to help the team even when he couldn’t make a shot.
On the other side of things, Georgia was led by senior guard J.J. Frazier’s 15 points, although he shot just 4-for-17 in the game. Forward Yante Maten added a dozen points for Georgia, which now likely finds itself on the outside of the NCAA bubble. ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Bulldogs in his “Next Four Out” category, and the loss leaves Georgia as something of a long shot for Selection Sunday. For his part, Calipari said after the game that the Bulldogs “deserve to be in the NCAA tournament.”
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Several former coaches have been attendance at the SEC tournament. Veterans Wimp Sanderson of Alabama and Dave Odom from South Carolina took a few moments to expound on the nature of the battles of the Southeastern Conference.
Sanderson, when asked for any advice for current head coaches, was succinct. “Recruit their fannies off,” said the former SEC championship winner.
Odom stopped by to chat and attributed some of the past success of programs like Georgia, LSU, and Mississippi State to coaches having both the freedom from internal pressure and the focus of not job-jumping to build up the programs.
Both coaches were optimistic for the future of the league.
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Former Wildcat Keith Bogans was honored as an SEC Legend on Friday by the conference. Each game has included a moment honoring a different legend. Former South Carolina guard and Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins was honored in the afternoon’s second game on Friday.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, and his most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games), is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.