ATLANTA | The Georgia men’s basketball team didn’t roll over for Kentucky Saturday in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals Saturday, but the Bulldogs knew they needed to play one of their best games to continue their feel–good, gritty run this season.
Georgia was manhandled by Kentucky on the backboards and had trouble getting defensive stops on in the second half when they needed them.
Even with a fully healthy lineup this time around against the Wildcats, it wasn’t enough.
The Wildcats pulled away and dealt the Bulldogs a 70-58 loss at the Georgia Dome, almost certainly ending any chance of an NCAA tournament bid for the Bulldogs.
“We’re not going to let it deflate us, we’re not going to let it discourage us,” forward Brandon Morris said. “We felt like we competed pretty hard. We just didn’t play well enough to beat a high-level team like Kentucky.”
The No. 3 seeded Bulldogs (19-13) probably needed to win the tournament to get into the NCAA field anyway, but it will be the No. 2 seed Wildcats (24-9) and top-ranked and top-seeded Florida playing for the SEC championship today at 3:15 p.m.
Georgia still is expected to land in the NIT, which would have seemed quite unlikely when it entered SEC play at 6-6.
Morris said Fox told players after the game that the Bulldogs likely would be in the NIT.
“We’re going to saddle back up and see if we get a bid to the NIT,” Morris said.
There is no shame in losing to the Wildcats. Kentucky’s roster oozes talent with seven McDonald’s All-American and two other players rated as top-50 players as recruits.
It began the season as the nation’s preseason No. 1 against one that was picked in the preseason to finish 11th in the 14-team SEC.
Georgia had guard Kenny Gaines this time after he missed a 25-point loss in Lexington on Jan. 25 with a groin injury. Gaines led Georgia with 13 points, but didn’t score in the first half and missed his first six shots.
The Bulldogs were playing catch-up from the start after falling behind 14-4 inside the first five minutes, but they hung tough in the first half despite trailing by 10 four different times.
Foul trouble again sent four Georgia starters to the bench with two fouls in the first half in a repeat of their SEC quarterfinal win over Ole Miss late Friday night.
The Bulldogs still went to the locker room down just 36-32.
Georgia’s bench outscored Kentucky’s 20-4 after Charles Mann (12 points), Donte’ Williams, Gaines and Morris all had two fouls.
The Bulldogs got as close at 41-39 on a driving layin with 15:03 to go from Gaines, who finally got on the scoreboard, but the Wildcats answered.
Guard James Young scored on a baseline drive and guard Aaron Harrison (game-high 22 points) sank a corner 3-pointer.
The Bulldogs cut the lead down to 46-43, but the Wildcats’ dominance on the boards (36-21) gave the Wildcats breathing room. Georgia had just three offensive rebounds.
“We sacrificed some offensive rebounds to take away some transition,” Fox said.
It was Georgia’s defensive rebounding that hurt it when Kentucky scored on three straight possessions off offensive rebounds to open a 53-43 lead with 11:52 to go.
“They just outworked us,” Fox said.
Julius Randle, a 6-9, 250-pound freshman forward, had 11 rebounds and 12 points.
The Wildcats shot 58 percent in the second half, 51 percent in the game.
Fox said afterwards this team “brought a lot of respect back to our program.”
Morris took time to reflect after Georgia lost for just the third time in the last 12 games.
“I think we achieved something just period,” Morris said. “We had a long season from starting off slow and bouncing back, getting 19 wins. We’ve brought a lot of pride back to this program.”