A Kentucky-Missouri game in the quarterfinals Friday could have been the culmination of multi-year effort to make the Southeastern Conference Tournament more exciting.
The league abandoned football domes in 2014, in part, to create a more alluring atmosphere.
“Even at the presidents’ level, the observation was made that there wasn’t a buzz,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday.
A Kentucky-Missouri game promised big buzz. Missourians excited by Cuonzo Martin reviving Mizzou’s program figured to rival the Big Blue Nation in Scottrade Center.
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The return of heralded freshman Michael Porter Jr., gave college basketball fans everywhere a reason to watch the SEC Tournament.
Then Georgia, a buttoned-down program built on a foundation of old-fashioned adherence to basketball fundamentals, beat Missouri 62-60 Thursday.
Senior Yante Maten was unapologetic about Georgia killing the buzz and advancing to the quarterfinal game against Kentucky on Friday.
“I just tell you, sorry, but we’re trying to win games, too,” he said. “We didn’t come here to lose.”
The victory over Missouri featured the staples of Georgia basketball: Defense and Maten.
When asked about Porter’s 5-for-17 shooting, Georgia Coach Mark Fox asked reporters to go easy on a freshman playing his first game since Nov. 10.
Fox also had a reminder for reporters. “You know, he also played against the No. 1 field goal percentage team in the league,” the Georgia coach said of Porter. “So we’ve been pretty good at that end. That’s going to be hard for a guy that hasn’t played any games or hasn’t had game rhythm experience to probably be super productive.”
Georgia came into the SEC Tournament leading in field goal defense overall (39.4 percent) and in league games (39.3 percent). Missouri made 34.4 percent of its shots.
Georgia (18-14) showed its defensive prowess at Kentucky on Dec. 3l. Although UK won 66-61, the Cats made only 31.5 percent of their shots. That was UK’s worst shooting since Jan. 10, 2015.
In losing 78-62 to Georgia on Wednesday night, Vanderbilt scored only 13 points in the game’s first 17-plus minutes.
When asked what made Georgia so good defensively, Fox said, “I think that we have a level of execution and mental attachment to the schemes that we try and play, and we have a variety of schemes that we can employ.”
As for Maten, his 21 points and 10 rebounds marked his league-leading 14th double-double. It also was the 87th time in the last 95 games that he scored 10 or more points. The Associated Press vote made Maten the SEC Player of the Year.
This kind of consistency gives Georgia’s offense a foundation.
“He’s been just a tremendous producer for us this year,” Fox said. “And the reason is he’s so versatile. He’s been very patient with some inexperience around him, but there’s a lot of places, he can shoot threes, he can get to the foul line, he can post up and go over both shoulders. He can go to a lot of places to score. It’s hard to take it all away.
Jackson said his teammates benefit, too. “He takes a lot of the pressure off everybody because he can handle a lot of adversity throughout the game. We’re just thankful to have him on the team.”
Georgia’s victory over Missouri had adversity.
With many in the announced crowd of 15,129 juiced by Porter’s return, Missouri zipped to an early 10-0 lead. Georgia did not score until the 14:04 mark of the first half.
“We didn’t try to put any emotions in the game other than we’re just going to come out and play our game,” Maten said of the charged atmosphere. “If it was an emotional game, we didn’t feel that way. We just made sure we played our type of basketball.”
Shortly thereafter, Georgia went on a 16-0 run. Again, nothing for Maten to get overly excited about.
“I just think we were being patient, getting to our spots, playing the open man, and just executing and hitting shots,” he said. “I think that’s pretty much all that it took to get us on that run.”
Missouri (20-12) capped its uphill climb by tying the score at 39. Georgia scored the next eight points.
“We were really just going out there listening to what Coach Fox wanted us to run,.” said Jackson.
Afterward, Martin suggested reporters not make too much of his Missouri team being beaten by a mere 12-seed.
“I don’t know if necessarily numbers mean anything this time of year when you play in these settings,” he said. “They have one of the best players in all of college basketball. They have experience. They’re battle-tested.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia
What: SEC Tournament quarterfinal
Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis
When: About 3:25 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 21-10, Georgia 17-14
Series: Kentucky leads 125-26
Last meeting: Kentucky won 66-61 on Dec. 31 in Lexington.