Remember when the SEC was going to be a cakewalk for Kentucky?
Remember when the popular narrative placed UK as being so good and the rest of the conference so bad that surely all the Cats would have to do was show up to win all the hardware?
It hasn’t really worked out that way.
Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia lost its best player, Yante Maten, not even two minutes into the game to a knee injury and visiting Kentucky had to claw and scrap, chase down rebounds, make 17 consecutive free throws in the final minutes and overcome a wondrous 36-point performance from J.J. Frazier to beat the Bulldogs 82-77.
“We got an SEC win on the road,” said UK Coach John Calipari. “I’m ecstatic.”
That was a couple of minutes after Calipari also said this, “Let’s be honest, we were lucky to get out alive.”
So yes, in all honesty, there are two ways to look at Kentucky’s 12th conference win in 14 games, a victory that moved Calipari’s club to 22-5 overall.
Kentucky did make 23 of 28 free throws on the night, including 17 of 18 over the final 6:17. After missing his first two free throws, freshman guard De’Aaron Fox did make eight straight free throws. And though he was just 3-for-11 from the floor, Malik Monk did make nine of his 11 attempts from the foul line.
Kentucky did rally from a 68-67 deficit with 2:42 left and a 75-73 deficit with 54 seconds left. Kentucky did get a pair of clutch rebounds late from Derek Willis and Bam Adebayo, the latter coming when the freshman center chased down the loose ball in a possession that ended with Fox making two free throws with 27.9 seconds left to put the Cats up for good at 77-75.
But there was plenty Kentucky did not do, starting with solving the season-long defensive riddle that is the straight-line drive to the basket. Consider that Frazier, who looked all the world like another No. 30, the one out in Golden State, made just two of seven three-point shots and nine two-point field goals on the way to an epic performance.
“It wasn’t that,” said Calipari of the drives. “It was the pick and rolls.”
That’s six of one and a half dozen of another. Either way, Kentucky could not guard the 5-foot-10 sophomore even without Frazier having the benefit of Maten, averaging over 19 points, patrolling the post.
Consider, too, that after UK led 33-31 at the half, Georgia shot 54.8 percent in the second half, harking back to those not-so-long-ago games when for whatever reason various teams would scorch the nets in the final 20 minutes.
Kentucky also did not follow up on Tuesday’s technically tight performance in trouncing Tennessee 83-58. That night at Rupp, UK committed all of seven turnovers the entire 40 minutes. Saturday, in Athens, Kentucky committed nine in the first half and 14 for the game.
Five of those first-half turnovers were walking violations. That’s right, five. When Calipari was asked about all that walking, the coach said he thought there was a lot of traveling committed on both ends, some of which was not called, but the answer didn’t really address what was a noticeable lack of focus in a hostile environment.
“Give Georgia credit,” Calipari said.
Georgia deserves tons of credit. The Bulldogs have had one bad break after another this season, from overtime losses at Kentucky and Florida, to a loss at Texas A&M when the clock malfunctioned at game’s end to now losing their best player before either team had even broken a sweat.
“We didn’t really capitalize on that,” admitted Fox.
And that’s the troubling thing. You’d think with Maten on the sidelines, the Cats had a clear opportunity to build on the momentum of last Tuesday’s performance and dominate the Dawgs.
Instead, they had to use the escape hatch. They got out alive, but just barely.
Kentucky at Missouri
9 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network)