An inspiring opponent propelled by guts and a determination to make the NCAA Tournament. A determined Kentucky team willing to slog uphill until the victory was won.
Kentucky and Georgia staged a compelling basketball drama Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
Kentucky won 93-80 to advance to Sunday’s championship game against regular-season co-champion Texas A&M, which, with LSU’s help, embarrassed LSU 71-38 in the other semifinal.
But Georgia also gave a championship effort. Playing their third game within 45 hours, the Bulldogs led much of the afternoon.
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In stark contrast to Friday’s quarterfinal victory over Alabama, Kentucky’s responsibilities returned to Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis. The star guards combined for 51 points. Murray had 26 and Ulis 25.
Alex Poythress chipped in 10 points, which included four post-up baskets as the Cats wore down Georgia in the second-half.
UK, which improved 25-8, also got 12 points from Isaiah Briscoe and 14 from Derek Willis.
Georgia fell to 19-13 and went home wondering how much the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee values guts and competitive spirit.
Yante Maten led Georgia with 20 points. J.J. Frazier (19) and Kenny Gaines (16) also reached double figures.
Torrid shooting and inspired play enabled Georgia to lead 49-44 at halftime. The Bulldogs made 61.3 percent of their shots.
As a result, Kentucky faced its first halftime deficit since trailing 37-27 at LSU on Jan. 5.
The first half belonged to the guards.
Gaines, Frazier and Mann combined for 31 of Georgia’s points. Murray (19) and Ulis (12) also scored 31.
Gaines’ three three-pointers matched the three (of 12 shots) he made in Georgia’s first two games here. Mann had not made a three in Georgia’s first two games.
The half bore no resemblance to the regular-season game Kentucky won 82-48. Yes, Georgia scored more points in the first half than it did the entire 40 minutes in Rupp Arena on Feb. 9.
The Bulldogs matched their 11 baskets in Rupp when Maten posted up for a score with 8:43 left in the first half. They exceeded it on Maten’s putback less than a minute later.
Gaines, Frazier and Mann made only five of 24 shots in Lexington. The trio made 11 of 19 shots in the first half.
Murray and Ulis kept Kentucky close. They made 10 of 16 shots.
Alex Poythress, the hero on Friday night against Alabama, made one shot and scored two points.
With Georgia playing its third game here within 45 hours, the question hanging over the second half was whether the Bulldogs could keep up the inspired effort.
The game seemed to reach a turning point with 15:43 left. After making a shot in the lane, Frazier appeared to come down on Charles Matthews’ foot. The crafty Georgia point guard crumpled to the court.
Georgia did not wilt with Frazier in the locker room. When Georgia fans cheered as Frazier jogged to a timeout huddle, the Bulldogs led 62-56 with 12:25 left. Frazier returned to the game.
Poythress gave Kentucky a lift by posting up for three baskets in barely three minutes.
That put the Cats in position. Briscoe’s putback of a missed three by Ulis gave Kentucky a 68-67 lead with 8:16 left. That marked the first UK lead since the 18:37 mark of the first half.
Until that point, UK had led for only 18 seconds.
With a palpable inevitability, Kentucky widened its lead in the final minutes. A Ulis three-pointer on a second-chance opportunity put the Cats ahead 79-72. That gave him 23 points.
Murray drove pretty-as-you-please on the next possession to make it 81-72. That gave him 23 points.
Georgia, which made nine of 26 shots in the second half, called time with 3:28 left. The Bulldogs used that time to strategize, to rest and, perhaps, give its tiny contingent of fans a chance to ponder a great effort.
Kentucky vs. Texas A&M
What: SEC championship
When: 1 p.m.
TV/radio: ESPN; WLAP-AM 630; WBUL-FM 98. 1