After Kentucky beat Georgia 71-60 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday, John Calipari paid Isaiah Briscoe what might be considered the ultimate compliment. The UK coach likened Briscoe’s competitive spirit to that displayed last season by Tyler Ulis.
“He wants to win every time he plays, and he plays to win,” Calipari said of Ulis. “Isaiah Briscoe is the same way.”
In Briscoe’s two Kentucky seasons, salutes to his contributions have been scarce, attention to his shooting struggles plentiful. Multiple examples of his anonymity came earlier this week when he was conspicuously absent from the announcements of all-this and all-that teams.
In a game featuring five all-league players, Briscoe took center stage and led Kentucky into Saturday’s semifinals against Alabama, a 64-53 winner over South Carolina on Friday.
Briscoe scored 20 points, which marked his first game in double figures since Valentine’s Day and the most he’d scored since getting 23 against Georgia on Jan. 31.
Fouls limited the playing time of De’Aaron Fox, another all-league (second-team) player. But he contributed 20 points. Bam Adebayo, another second-team all-league player, had a double-double (13 points and 10 rebounds). Derek Willis chipped in seven points and 11 rebounds.
What made Briscoe’s production stand out — for a change — was it came in a game where the two X-factor players stayed in the shadows.
Kentucky guard Malik Monk, the SEC Player of the Year in a media vote, made only one of seven shots and scored two points.
Georgia guard J.J. Frazier, who made all-league teams selected by the media and coaches, made only four of 17 shots and scored 15 points.
Yante Maten, Georgia’s other all-league player, made three of 11 shots and scored 12 points.
If the absence from all-league teams irked or inspired Briscoe, he wasn’t saying.
“Well, that’s fine,” he said when asked. “That doesn’t bother me. We’re winning.”
Of the laurels and hearty handshakes bestowed on Monk, Fox and Adebayo, Briscoe said, “I’m proud of them. I told all of them congratulations.”
A reporter reminded Briscoe that Michael Jordan took inspiration from each and every snub, real or imagined.
“That’s not me,” Briscoe said. “I’m good. You know, I didn’t make any of the teams. It’s all good. I’m here helping my team win. That’s all that’s important to me.”
Kentucky snapped its streak of poor starts at three games, twice built first-half leads of 13 points and settled for a 32-25 halftime advantage.
Kentucky never trailed for almost 18 minutes of the first half (to be precise, 17:57) despite Monk and Fox being limited by fouls. Monk made only one shot in a two-point half, while Fox sat out the final 6:09 after picking up his second foul..
With UK’s lead at 27-14, Frazier briefly came alive. His first basket, which came on a pull-up jumper, came with 4:16 left in the half.
When Frazier hit another pull-up jumper, then added a driving layup in transition (the only time he scored on his signature move), Kentucky called timeout to ponder a lead reduced to 28-22.
As in Athens, Ga., on Feb. 18, Kentucky sent a second defender at Frazier to get the ball out of his hands in the final seconds. Frazier beat the move by finding freshman Tyree Crump for a right-corner three-pointer with 10.2 seconds left. That brought Georgia within 30-25 (the smallest UK lead in more than 13 minutes).
But Briscoe answered with a pull-up jumper from 15 feet with less than two seconds on the clock.
Briscoe’s first three-pointer since Feb. 7 helped Kentucky get off to a fast start in the second half. The shot was part of a 6-0 mini run.
Kentucky limited Georgia to one basket in the first eight-plus minutes of the second half.
In that time, UK expanded its lead to 47-30 at the second TV timeout. Briscoe led the way with authoritative drives while also handling point guard duties as fouls continued to lessen Fox’s playing time.
“I’m just going to do whatever my team needs me to do to win,” Briscoe said of his role. “I think that’s who I am.”
Whatever awards go — or don’t go — Briscoe’s way, Calipari sounded pleased with what the sophomore guard brings to Kentucky’s team.
“These guys know, in a foxhole, dude is coming out fighting,” Calipari said. “He ain’t running. We’re in this foxhole together. I know one guy is fighting, and it’s him.”
Words of praise from Calipari are nothing new for Briscoe. They fill the vacuum of outside recognition.
“I know what I bring to the team and I know my importance to the team,” Briscoe said. “And Coach reminds me all the time. . . . He’s just keeping me confident. He always has my back, and I have his.”
At Nashville, Tenn.
Miss. State 79, LSU 52
Missouri 86, Auburn 83 (OT)
Georgia 59, Tennessee 57
Alabama 75, Miss. State 55
Vanderbilt 66, Texas A&M 41
Ole Miss 86, Missouri 74
Kentucky 71, Georgia 60
Alabama 64, South Carolina 53
Florida vs. Vanderbilt, (n)
Arkansas vs. Ole Miss, (n)
1 p.m.: Kentucky vs. Alabama (ESPN)
3:30 p.m.: Florida-Vanderbilt winner vs. Arkansas-Ole Miss winner (ESPN)
1 p.m.: Championship game (ESPN)