No Jarred Vanderbilt. No problem.
With its leading rebounder and energetic spark relegated to the bench, Kentucky opened play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday by handling Georgia 62-49.
A collective effort smothered Georgia and propelled UK into the semifinals Saturday against Alabama. The Tide rallied in the second half to beat No. 1-seed Auburn in the day’s first quarterfinal.
“We definitely took a big step,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “Cal’s message to us was we’re going to need a little more from you, you, you. … We stepped it up today. We’ve got to keep that going.”
No one took a bigger step in answering Coach John Calipari’s call than PJ Washington. Already likely to have an enhanced role while Vanderbilt is sidelined with an ankle injury, he outplayed Georgia star Yante Maten. For only the ninth time in his last 96 games, Maten failed reach double digits in scoring. He made only two of 10 shots and finished with nine points.
Washington’s rise to the occasion was reminiscent of how he outplayed another all-SEC player, Grant Williams, at Tennessee.
“I always play well against guys I feel are great players,” Washington said. “I just try to go out and prove to myself that I can play with a guy like that. … I just took the matchup really seriously.”
That set the tone. Although Georgia came into the game with a nation’s sixth-best defense, it was the UK defenders who starred. It was a season-low point total and shooting percentage (28.3 percent) for the Bulldogs.
Maten was defended by Washington with frequent help from teammates with double-teams.
“PJ is going to step up for the marquee matchup,” Quade Green said. “He likes being that top dog.”
While saluting Kentucky’s defense, Georgia’s embattled coach, Mark Fox, pointed out that Maten was playing with a bruised knee and guard Juwan Parker with a sore Achilles tendon. Neither would have participated if Friday was a practice day, Fox said.
On offense, Washington led UK with 18 points. He got help from several teammates. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox added 15 each.
Kentucky improved to 22-10. Georgia fell to 18-15.
Kentucky led 30-23 at halftime. It was UK’s largest lead to that point and the fewest points in the first half by a Kentucky opponent this season. The previous low: the 26 scored by Texas A&M at College Station on Feb. 10.
Georgia, which made only eight of 29 shots in the first half, tried to establish Maten in the low post early. But as in Knoxville in early January, Washington had much the better of the matchup of post-up forwards.
In this case, Maten played the role of Tennessee’s Williams. He abandoned the low post midway through the half. His only basket was a jumper from the elbow area with 9:49 left.
Late in the half, Maten returned to the post. In one telling sequence, he nearly fell down trying to get a shot off, then stumbled out of bounds after the rebound got redirected his way.
Gilegous-Alexander was UK’s main man on offense in the first half. He made five of six shots and had three assists. Two of his other passes found Sacha Killeya-Jones and Knox open for shots. But they missed.
While Alabama outscored Auburn 50-22 in the second half to win the day’s first quarterfinal, Kentucky quickly removed any chance of another stunning comeback.
The Cats expanded the margin to as much as 17 points early in the second half. Georgia twice called time before the first television timeout. On the second, with 16:28 left, Fox came onto the court to near the top of the key to ask for timeout. As his players neared the bench, his facial expression said: What are you doing?
Kentucky was playing free and easy now. A pretty touch pass by Green resulted in a fast-break dunk by Washington. That put UK ahead 47-30.
Two possessions later, UK had three offensive rebounds, the third by Gabriel after Gilgeous-Alexander had to throw up a three-point heave from near midcourt to beat the shot clock.
Meanwhile, Maten could not come to Georgia’s rescue. His second basket did not come until a putback dunk with 9:54 left.
Georgia threatened to reduce the UK lead to single digits with about nine minutes left. With the margin at 47-36, William “Turtle” Jackson missed a three-pointer.
Then Hamidou Diallo, who had struggled with his perimeter shooting much of this season, hit a three-pointer from in front of the Kentucky bench.
It was that kind of afternoon for Kentucky.
For a day, Vanderbilt’s absence didn’t hurt.
“We stepped up today,” Gabriel said. “We’ve got to keep that going.”
Kentucky vs. Alabama
What: SEC Tournament semifinals
Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis
When: 1 p.m. EST
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 22-10, Alabama 18-14
Series: Kentucky leads 111-37
Last meeting: Kentucky won 81-71 on Feb. 17 in Lexington