Kentucky continued to put in basketball terms what Forrest Gump said about a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.
The Kentucky team that beat Georgia 66-61 bore no resemblance to the Kentucky team that buried Louisville two days earlier. And that Kentucky team showed marked improvement from the Kentucky team that lost to UCLA the previous weekend.
Such inconsistency — collectively and individually — continued to be the fate for Kentucky, which every UK fan knows is believed to be the youngest, least experienced team in college basketball history.
“We’re still struggling with our identity as a team,” Wenyen Gabriel said. He suggested maybe the trip home for Christmas distracted UK players in the UCLA game.
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Maybe the rout of Louisville had an effect. “Maybe we were a little high on ourselves,” Gabriel said.
Despite making only 31.5 percent of its shots (the worst shooting by a UK team since 28.1 percent against Texas A&M on Jan. 10, 2015), Kentucky showed poise down the stretch.
The Cats either scored or got to the foul line on every possession in the final seven minutes. It was a game UK Coach John Calipari found difficult to understand.
“Until I watch the tape, I don’t even know how we won this game,” he said.
Breaking from the usual routine, the UK players did not watch video of the first half during intermission.
“I said, ‘If you don’t pass the ball to each other, we’re not winning anyway,” Calipari said.
In getting the Southeastern Conference schedule off successfully, Kentucky improved to 11-2.
Georgia fell to 9-3. Yante Maten led the Bulldogs with 17 points and 11 rebounds. His sixth double-double of the season equaled the most by an SEC player this season.
Even if it wasn’t New Year’s Eve, the first-half shooting would have driven any fan of offensive basketball to drink.
UK and Georgia combined to make only 18 of 64 shots (28.1 percent). That included only one of 19 three-point shots (5.3 percent).
Maten made only three of 10 shots, which might have made Georgia feel good about having a halftime lead.
Kentucky made 20.7 percent of its shots (six of 29). “That was an selfish as any of my teams have played in a while,” Calipari said of the first half.
Yet Georgia probably went to the locker room unhappy. Surely, Coach Mark Fox was steaming. A technical foul on Fox helped Kentucky reduce a 27-20 deficit with less than 40 seconds left to 27-26 at halftime.
Fox picked up the technical with 12.2 seconds left. It appeared he believed Juwan Parker was fouled as Sacha Killeya-Jones blocked his shot off a baseline drive.
When UK went on a fast break that resulted in a foul on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s drive, Fox protested to the point he got a technical.
“Back-to-back plays that I thought were similar, and they had different outcomes,” Fox said of the reason for his technical foul. “That was what I was disappointed with.”
Gilgeous-Alexander made the two technical free throws and two more free throws on the foul to bring Kentucky within a point of Georgia at halftime.
The first half tried the patience of both coaches.
Aside from unconditional surrender or player injury, UK’s start couldn’t have been worse. Two starters — Nick Richards and PJ Washington — picked up two fouls and went to the bench inside the first three minutes.
After UK missed its first six shots, Calipari sought relief with a timeout at the 17:23 mark. Gabriel and Gilgeous-Alexander entered the game. Barely a minute later, Gabriel’s unforced turnover had Calipari put a hand to his forehead as if trying to ease a headache.
The offensive inefficiency included Kentucky having only four baskets in the first 13 minutes. The Cats had one basket in one span of more than seven minutes. Georgia went scoreless for more than six minutes.
Kentucky twice fell behind by six points early in the second half. But when Georgia point guard William “Turtle” Jackson picked up his fourth foul with 13:51 left, UK had life.
“It was big, obviously,” Fox said of Jackson’s fourth foul. “His foul trouble had a significant impact on the game.”
The Cats began pressing, which caused Georgia to wobble severely. The Bulldogs had three straight turnovers — and four in five trips downcourt — without Jackson on the floor. That only emboldened UK, which pressed and trapped with Jackson out of the game.
Hamidou Diallo’s driving layup out UK ahead 47-46 with 8:00 left. It was the Cats’ first lead since the 8:45 mark of the first half. To that point, UK had led for 99 seconds, while Georgia led for 12 seconds shy of 26 minutes.
As a possession-by-possession struggle ensued, Kentucky did not falter.
After UK had made only three of its first 14 three-points shots, Gilgeous-Alexander hit from beyond the arc to give the Cats a 54-53 lead with 4:37 left.
After that three-pointer, Kentucky went to the drive exclusively. This formula — aided by a three-pointer by Gabriel with 1:06 left — enabled UK to outlast Georgia.
Diallo was philosophical about UK’s ups and downs.
“That’s part of the game,” he said. “It’s a bumpy road.”
No. 16 Kentucky at LSU
8:30 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network)