Date story published: Sunday, January 18, 2004
Now we know how lowly Georgia beat highly rated Georgia Tech.
Reflecting the scrappy nature of their coach, the Bulldogs go toe to toe with a supposedly superior opponent. The Bulldogs take the initiative, draw strength from staying close and, not encumbered by expectation, complete a surprising upset.
Mix in a refreshing week to prepare, the motivation from a perceived slight and Kentucky's emotionally draining victory four days earlier, then Georgia's 65-57 victory yesterday seemed inevitable.
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In his post-game assessment, UK Coach Tubby Smith returned again and again to one theme: Toughness, both physical and mental.
"You've got to compliment Georgia," he said. "They played aggressively and physically, and I didn't think we responded with aggressive play. Maybe it was because we were coming off a big win and long night at Starkville. But that's not an excuse."
Clearly, Kentucky did not come primed to compete.
"Hopefully we didn't overlook them," reserve Bernard Cote said, "but it sort of looked like it."
Georgia, which came into the game off a school-record low (back-to-back losses by more than 20 points to start the Southeastern Conference schedule), probably isn't good enough or deep enough to contend. But in a given game, the Bulldogs showed again they can compete.
Georgia trailed for only 70 seconds. Even severe foul trouble and reliance on an all-freshmen bench could not stop Georgia from ending Kentucky's well-chronicled winning streaks: 21 straight games against SEC opponents and 19 straight SEC regular-season games.
Georgia, which ranked last among SEC teams in points allowed and opponents' shooting, limited UK to 36.5-percent accuracy. As has been frequently the case, the Cats made only a handful of perimeter shots (four in all). The surprise was the many misses around the basket.
"That's the sign of a team not mentally focused," Smith said.
Georgia, 9-5 overall and 1-2 in the SEC, brought a sharp collective mind to Rupp Arena.
A week off since an 84-63 loss at South Carolina "helped tremendously," forward Jonas Hayes said.
The Bulldogs got another boost while watching television in their Lexington hotel rooms Friday night. They didn't like hearing Smith speak of using UK's reserves in the game.
"He said he planned on getting his bench involved early in the game," Georgia forward Chris Daniels said. "It was a slap in the face. We wanted to go out there and show people that even though we're struggling a little bit this year, we've still got a lot of fight in us."
Georgia made a solid start a priority. "It was really big to get ahead early," point guard Rashad Wright said. "Coach (Dennis Felton) said they'd been jumping on everybody in the first 10 minutes. We wanted to come out and control the tempo of the game and we were able to do that."
By leading 6-2 at the first television timeout, Georgia became the first Kentucky opponent in eight games to score more than three points in that span.
Kentucky, 11-2 overall and 2-1 in the SEC, had to play Georgia's deliberate pace. Wright (one turnover in 39 minutes) kept UK's transition game holstered.
"They backed it up and said, 'We're going to play quarter-court and make you score over us,' " Smith said.
After facing its largest deficit of the season (20-9 with 7:20 left in the first half), UK made fitful charges. "We couldn't get anything going the whole game," Josh Carrier said; "It carried on and on and on and on."
Kentucky closed within one, 32-31, with 17:10 left, then went scoreless for more than four minutes. The Cats took their first lead on an Erik Daniels free throw with 12:43 left. But buoyed by an overwhelming rebounding edge (22-12 in the second half), Georgia outplayed UK down the stretch.
Six times down the stretch Georgia scored on second-chance opportunities in a performance that mimicked Mississippi State's control of the boards in the second half on Tuesday.
"We escaped down there because we got a lucky shot off," Smith said of the State game. "If we don't improve our intensity and toughness, we're going to have a tough time."
Wright, who led all scorers with 20 points, hit two three-pointers that killed Kentucky's comeback hopes.
"We were able to win these games last year," point guard Cliff Hawkins said. "That was last year. We have to go out and win. No one's going to bow down because you won 26 in a row (last season). They're going to play you even harder and that's what they did today."