Kentucky’s game at Georgia Saturday night showed why Coach John Calipari said a week ago that he’d take the preliminary three-seed for the NCAA Tournament announced that day and be thankful.
It also showed the wisdom in what ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said a month earlier that Kentucky was merely “regular-good.”
Regular was good enough, barely, as Kentucky beat Georgia 82-77.
To win and remained tied for first place in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky had to overcome two obstacles.
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The shooting of its three tenors — the trio of star guards — was terribly off key. De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe combined to make only 11 of 37 shots (one of 10 from three-point range).
UK finding the ingenuity and willpower to win anyway thrilled Calipari. “I loved it, I loved it,” he said. “We made free throws. We attacked. We didn’t look for the easy play. Every (play) was something at the rim, which we were begging for the whole game.”
Kentucky, 22-5 overall and 12-2 in the SEC, also had to overcome Georgia guard J.J. Frazier, who scored a season-high 36 points.
Frazier, who had been compared to former UK All-America Tyler Ulis earlier in the week, came up big at an opportune time. Georgia lost its leading scorer, Yante Maten to injury barely 90 seconds into the game.
“Frazier was ridiculous,” Calipari said, “and controlled the whole game. We had to trap him at the end and make somebody else try to beat us. I had no choice.”
This moment came with the score tied at 75-75 and less than a minute left. Dominique Hawkins guarded Frazier. As Frazier crossed mid-court, Mychal Mulder approached as a second defender. Frazier passed to Juwan Parker on the wing. He missed badly.
“We were lucky to get out alive,” Calipari said. “I mean, literally lucky to win the game.”
Maten crumpled to the floor with 18:25 left in the first half. A fast-break basket by Briscoe preceded Maten’s collapse. He left the court trying not to put any weight on his right foot.
Before the first half ended, Maten returned to the bench with a brace on his right knee.
After five ties and nine lead changes inside the final nine minutes, Kentucky won it at the foul line. Fox and Monk made eight of eight free throws in the last 44.4 seconds.
“I just made plays in the big moments,” said Fox, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the final 4:36. “And I think that’s what people are going to look at in this game.”
Halftime was uh-oh time for Kentucky.
Even though Maten went down 95 seconds into the game and Frazier went more than 15 minutes without a basket, Kentucky had not put Georgia away.
Although the opposition’s two double-digit scorers were either injured (Maten) or oddly subdued (Frazier), Kentucky only led 33-31 at halftime.
“We really didn’t capitalize on it, on his presence not being out there,” Fox said of Maten’s injury. “Kudos to them. They played well without him.”
Going into the final 90 seconds, Kentucky had matched its largest first-half lead with a 30-25 advantage.
Then Frazier, who went from the 16:26 mark to the final minute without a basket, got hot. After making a catch-and-shoot jumper with 55 seconds left, Frazier set the final score in a play that had to bring back unpleasant memories.
UK’s inability to contain the dribbler showed itself as Frazier, arguably the shiftiest guard in the SEC, got Monk on his heels, then hit three-pointer at the buzzer to set the halftime score. It was the only three-pointer Georgia made (in eight attempts) in the first half.
Frazier, who scored Georgia’s first five points before going silent, led all first-half scorers with 14.
On Thursday, Georgia Coach Mark Fox spoke of the need to stay close. “When you play Kentucky, you can make it a competitive game,” he said.
Georgia did that. By making seven of their first 13 shots of the second half (another unpleasant trend by UK opponents that continued), the Bulldogs tied it at 47-47 going into the final 10-plus minutes.
The game wound to a 61-61 tie with barely five minutes left.
If Kentucky was going to win, the Cats would have to do it without Briscoe. He fouled out with 4:53 left when he lowered a shoulder into a defender before trying for a put-back.
When asked what it meant that Kentucky found a way to win, Fox said, “That we can win in other ways.”
Kentucky at Missouri
9 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network)