Cats take Georgia's best punch, surge ahead in second half
NASHVILLE, Tenn.— No. 16 Kentucky staggered around for much of Saturday’s game after being punched by Georgia, but it was the Wildcats who eventually landed the knockout blow in a come-from-behind 93-80 win in the SEC semifinals.
UK trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half as Georgia shot 61 percent, but UK’s resiliency allowed it to rally in the second half. The Wildcats were down for all but 27 seconds of the game until Isaiah Briscoe’s offensive rebound and putback off of a Tyler Ulis missed three gave the Wildcats a 68-67 lead with 8:16 left.
From there UK never looked back and outscored the Bulldogs 25-13 over the final eight minutes to pull out a difficult win and set up a rematch with No. 1 seed Texas A&M in the SEC Championship.
“This was a great test,” John Calipari said after the game. “That was a war. We got down, and we didn’t stop. We kept playing, and they didn’t go away. We had to make big plays and big rebounds down the stretch to even think about beating them.”
That is what is most impressive about UK’s win; The Bulldogs were cooking up all of the key ingredients that plagued UK in many of its eight losses. The Wildcats relied heavily on Ulis and Jamal Murray in the first half—the backcourt combined for 31 points and five assists during that time—and the big men produced virtually nothing while everything was working for the Bulldogs.
Skal Labissiere and Alex Poythress started the game for UK and each scored a bucket, but both were in foul trouble and didn’t grab a rebound in the first half. Derek Willis was the third leading scorer in the first half with five points, but he only grabbed two rebounds. Marcus Lee played 15 minutes but didn’t record a rebound. The Wildcats were outrebounded 16-13 in the first half and it appeared to be another case of déjá vu.
In the second half, though, UK turned the momentum by pounding the ball into Poythress in the post. The senior knocked down four three’s against Alabama on Friday night, but all of his shots were inside the arc against the Bulldogs. Trailing 62-54, UK went to Poythress three of out the next four possessions and he used excellent post moves to make the score 64-63 in Georgia’s favor.
“How about Alex in the second half?” Calipari said after the game. “He gave us a goose egg in the first half. He now begins to say, okay, let me get this going. Well, he’s not done that throughout his career. So this was a big day for Alex.”
Minutes later, Briscoe secured the critical putback to give UK the lead. The 6-foot-3 freshman was critical in UK’s comeback, as he finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and two assists. He, like many of the Wildcats outside of Murray and Ulis, didn’t make an impact in the first half. Briscoe played 12 minutes in the first half but was taken out in favor of Charles Matthews after he turned it over on a fast break.
Matthews provided quality minutes for UK by grabbing three rebounds and collecting two steals, but it was Briscoe who broke Georgia’s back late in the game. The Newark, N.J., native buried a jumper to give UK a 74-69 lead and then lulled the defense to sleep by driving the baseline on the next possession and found Lee for a dunk off of a beautiful bounce pass.
“Isaiah does a lot for this team,” Ulis said. “When I’m a little tired, I’ll go off the ball and he guards the point guards. He pressures the ball and rebounds. He’s finishing at the rim and he dished out six assists. He makes plays.”