Kentucky got the chance to show the possession-by-possession test of toughness and nerve that John Calipari spoke about the day before.
The Cats showed enough of those qualities to beat hard-luck Georgia 90-81 in overtime Tuesday night.
Malik Monk led the way with 37 points, the most the freshman had scored in a game other than the 47-point starburst against North Carolina. He scored all but six of his points in the second half and overtime.
“We just put him on the baseline and said, we’re going to find you,” Calipari said of Monk. “And you make shots and make plays. And that’s how we did it in the second half.”
Kentucky had to face this test without point guard De’Aaron Fox. An undisclosed illness sidelined the Southeastern Conference leader in assists (5.7 per game) and the player who was on pace to threaten Tyler Ulis’ program record for assists in a season.
Fox’s absence made Georgia Coach Mark Fox suspect that Monk would try to fill the vacuum.
“We knew, obviously, he might be super aggressive with the other kid out,” Fox said. “And we talked about that with our team before the game. I thought in the first half, we did a good job of containing him. The second half we just couldn’t find an answer.”
With Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts among those packed in Rupp Arena, the game came down to a final possession.
Georgia J.J. Frazier, the SEC’s leading free-throw shooter (89.2 percent), made two with 44.4 seconds left to put Kentucky behind 75-73.
Bam Adebayo and William “Turtle” Jackson II each made one of two to leave Georgia ahead 76-74 with 22.2 seconds remaining.
Kentucky called time with 10.8 seconds left and intended for Monk to inbounds the ball, then take a return pass for a shot. Georgia saw the alignment and called its own timeout.
So UK made Isaiah Briscoe the inbounds man. After each team called a timeout with 10.8 seconds left, he got the ball to Monk, who swished a contested shot from the left side to tie the score.
“Oh, it was great defense,” Monk said. “The best you can play.”
That’s how Briscoe saw it.
“He showed me a picture after the game and said, ‘Dude almost blocked it,’” Briscoe said. “It was good defense. But Malik is Malik. And he did what Malik does.”
The first Kentucky-Georgia overtime since the tornado-interrupted 2008 SEC Tournament began well for the home team. Monk saw to that. He twice hit three-pointers with UK holding leads that could be erased in one Georgia possession.
The second put Kentucky ahead 85-81 with 2:48 left.
When Yante Maten threw an errant pass out of a double-team on the low post (a tactic UK used much of the night), victory was secure.
Kentucky improved to 18-4 overall and 8-1 in the SEC, remaining in first place in the conference.
Briscoe flirted with another triple-double, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Bam Adebayo struggled with fouls all night and finished with 12 points.
Georgia fell to 13-9 overall and 4-5 in the SEC.
The Bulldogs’ main men, Frazier and Maten, led the way with 23 and 22 points, respectively.
Kentucky and Georgia were tied at 29-29 at halftime. Given the game’s first six minutes, that had to feel like a 20-point lead for UK.
The game could not have started more poorly for Kentucky. Not only were Fox and Sacha Killeya-Jones sidelined by undisclosed illness, but Georgia made its first six shots and roared to a 19-5 lead in less than six minutes.
Maten scored the game’s first seven points, part of a 9-0 Georgia run that prompted a Kentucky timeout with 17:31 left.
Less than two minutes later, UK’s troubles mounted. Adebayo went to the bench with his second foul at the 15:42.
At that point, UK Coach John Calipari scrapped his big starting lineup and went small. Adebayo and Humphries had started the game in an updated version of the twin towers look.
Instead, Calipari went with three guards: Monk, Briscoe and Dominique Hawkins. That seemed to steady Kentucky.
With Maten strangely docile (after scoring the game’s first seven points, he didn’t take another shot for more than 12 minutes), Kentucky slowly chipped away at the deficit.
Switching to a zone defense, something Calipari steadfastly says he abhors, seemed to make a difference. Georgia made 11 of its first 19 shots. The Bulldogs made only one of six shots after UK switched to a zone with five minutes left — and that shot was a three by Frazier that bounced off the rim before somehow curling back into the basket.
It was the lowest-scoring half of the season (the previous low was 30 in the first half at Louisville).
Twenty-nine points seemed puny for a UK team that came into the game averaging 46.8 points in first halves.
Then again, it could have been worse than a fresh start in a 20-minute game to decide the winner.
Kentucky took its first lead with 18:16 left when Briscoe banked in a shot. That put UK ahead 33-31.
Back-to-back three-pointers by Monk — his first treys of the game — expanded the lead to 39-33 at the first television timeout of the second half. That dulled any anxiety over Adebayo picking up his third foul with 18:01 left.
Monk hit two more threes inside the first seven minutes of the half. He made only five (in 19 attempts) in the previous two games.
Monk’s fourth trey caused Mark Fox to jab an angry fist into the air. He called timeout with 13:30 left and UK ahead 47-42.
On UK’s next possession, Monk hit another three-pointer.
When Georgia later closed to 59-55, Monk ball-faked and drove the baseline for a layup. As Calipari had advised, Monk showed he wasn’t solely dependent on jump shots.
Kentucky led by as much as eight points six times in the second half. But Maten and Frazier kept coming.
Back-to-back fast-break baskets by Frazier — a pull-up 15-footer and a drive to the basket — tied it at 70-70. A UK timeout with 3:47 left ushered in the final dramatics.
No. 8 Kentucky at No. 24 Florida
8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)