Kentucky Coach John Calipari voiced surprise that his team beat Georgia 90-81 in overtime Tuesday.
“I don’t know how we won, to be honest,” he said.
Fittingly, one reason Kentucky won was also a surprise. The Cats changed the tenor of the game by playing zone defense, a strategy that Calipari has been loath to use in his eight seasons as UK coach. He credited assistant coach Tony Barbee with implementing the defense in practices Sunday and Monday.
“I’m not a zone coach,” Calipari said. “I don’t like zone. And for two days, we’ve been playing zone (in practice).”
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Calipari cited two reasons why Kentucky worked on a zone defense in recent practices. UK needed to see zone to sharpen its zone offense, he said. And when the Cats play a bigger lineup (UK started Bam Adebayo and Isaac Humphries against Georgia), a zone better suits the Cats.
There might also be a third: a zone could help limit straight-line drives to the basket. Georgia made 47.1 percent of its two-point shots, which was down from the 54.7-percent accuracy shot by UK’s four most recent opponents: Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kansas.
“Tony coached it and I just cringed,” said Calipari, who jokingly suggested that every opponent’s shot goes in against a zone.
Georgia made its first six shots, and nine of the first 13 against a man-to-man. A switch to a zone contributed to Georgia’s 3-for-12 shooting down the stretch of the first half.
Georgia Coach Mark Fox said UK’s zone did not surprise his team.
“We anticipated some zone,” he said. “They zoned us a little bit in the (Southeastern Conference) tournament last year. “We were prepared to see a little bit of zone. ... That zone changed the tempo enough to get them back in the game.”
Isaiah Briscoe said UK might play more zone in future games.
“He actually said maybe that’s something we do,” Briscoe said of Calipari. “We like to play man. I like to play man. It’s a battle. Man against man.”
Malik Monk said Calipari likes zone more than he’ll admit publicly.
“When we play just aggressive all the time, he loves it,” Monk said. “He said he was going to play more of it if we play aggressive.”
But Calipari downplayed the chances of Kentucky playing much zone defense in the next game: at Florida on Saturday night.
“You cannot play them zone because they’ve got too many three-point shooters,’ Calipari said. “They’ve got like three on the floor.”
Going into this week, Florida had made 69 three-point shots in Southeastern Conference games. That ranked second only to Vanderbilt’s 83. The Gators also ranked fifth in three-point shooting accuracy at 36.9 percent.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Mychal Mulder all missed the game because of illness.
Calipari seemed unsure when the players will return.
“De’Aaron may be ready for Friday (the trip to Florida for Saturday’s game),” he said. “He may not.”
After saying Fox, Killeya-Jones and Mulder were out, Calipari quipped, “I’m thinking about getting out.”
Briscoe and Monk played 45 and 44 minutes, respectively.
Calipari used that endurance as a motivation to other UK players. Don’t get in foul trouble, he said, and you, too, could hardly ever go the bench.
To show that he’s not averse to players logging a lot of minutes, Calipari said his guard tanden at UMass — Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla — each averaged 39 minutes a game. Calipari challenged reporters to look up that stat.
If Calipari meant UMass’s Final Four season, 1995-96, Travieso averaged 35.8 minutes and Padilla 36.5.
Georgia’s Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier came into the game as the nation’s ninth-best scoring combination (35.2 ppg). That was among teams with two scorers among the top 250. Maten and Frazier were the only combo from a Power Five conference.
Kentucky had already played two other duos in the top 10: Alec Peters and Shane Hammink of Valparaiso and Jermaine Crumpton and Kassius Robertson of Canisius.
In both earlier games, the duos failed to reach their average. Peters-Hammink, who average 39.4 points going into this week, combined for 31. Crumpton-Robertson, who average 35.1, scored 29.
Maten and Frazier exceeded their scoring average, combining for 45 points.
An overtime loss bolstered the idea that Georgia is the SEC’s hard-luck team this season.
Earlier this season, Georgia lost in overtime at Florida and the infamous one-point game at Texas A&M in which a clock malfunction showed 5.6 seconds remaining when actually time had expired.
Some people might see discouraging heartbreak, but Georgia Coach Mark Fox saw a life lesson.
“You’re going to have some things happen in your life, and we have to learn to deal with that adversity as a team so we can have that skill going forward in life,” he said. “You’re going to have curveballs thrown at you. You’re going to have things that don’t go your way. It’s how you respond after that that really determines your outcome.”
UK recognized Brent Musburger’s last call for ESPN by giving the longtime broadcaster a framed No. 50 jersey in a pregame ceremony. It helped mark an almost-50-year broadcasting career.
Musburger also did the “Y” during a timeout in the second half.
Last week, Kansas Coach Bill Self spoke of Musburger’s impending departure from ESPN.
“I love having him around,” Self said. “I always love the stories.”
Georgia also marked the occasion. When Musburger attended the Bulldogs’ shoot-around Tuesday, team officials presented him with a framed copy of the program for the 1989 spring football game.
Musburger and Pat Haden were honorary coaches in the game. Musburger’s team won 29-0. The framed program proclaimed him the only unbeaten and unscored-upon coach in Georgia history.
▪ Calipari had lamented the second-chance points UK surrendered recently. The previous four opponents averaged 20.3 second-chance points. The Cats outscored Georgia 24-3 in second-chance points. Georgia’s three equaled a season low for a UK opponent. Texas A&M also had three.
▪ UK improved its home record to 130-6 in Calipari’s eight seasons as coach.
No. 8 Kentucky at No. 24 Florida
8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)