Surging Georgia basketball knocks off Kentucky

semerson@macon.comMarch 7, 2013 

ATHENS -- The rest of the nation was focused on what was perceived as a bad loss for the defending national champion. Inside the Georgia locker room, however, there was just cheering, and a plea for the rest of the country to know what has gone on with this team.

The Bulldogs, who started the season much worse than any imagined, are now finishing it better than imagined. They have turned around their season, capped with a victory over the top brand name in college basketball.

Georgia not only beat Kentucky on Thursday night, 72-62, but it did so convincingly. In front an unusually ramped-up Stegeman Coliseum crowd, the Bulldogs led the entire second half, and by as many as 16.

Kentucky was the team on the NCAA bubble, and Georgia started the night with a losing record. But the Bulldogs played like and looked like the better team.

“We didn’t start the season well. OK?” head coach Mark Fox said, alluding to starts of 2-7 overall and 1-4 in SEC play. “But if you look at the last five or six weeks, we’ve got a pretty good little basketball team right now. Pretty competitive. We’ve got a ways to go. Not saying we’ve arrived. Not saying we’ve done anything, OK. But we’ve become a better basketball team. And I don’t think a loss to us should be considered a bad loss.”

The NCAA tournament selection committee will probably feel differently. Kentucky (20-10 overall, 11-6 in the SEC) is now in dire straits as far as an at-large bid.

But Georgia (15-15, 9-8) has clinched at least a .500 record in SEC play, an amazing feat considering the way its season started. The team that lost at home to Youngstown State, Southern Miss, Iona and Mississippi State (which will likely be the worst-seeded team in the SEC tournament) has in the past week played spoiler against Tennessee and Kentucky.

“I think people look at the record, instead of just looking at the games and seeing how close they really are, and seeing how we can really progress,” guard Sherrard Brantley said. “The only people that can really see that is us.”

“I called Mark Fox several weeks ago and told him what a great job he was doing with his team,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “I told him it was unbelievable. … This is like coach of the year stuff that he’s doing here.”

Once again, Georgia was led by star guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds. But for very long stretches Thursday night, the Bulldogs did fine without him.

They went on a 15-3 run in the first half to take control of the game, with Caldwell-Pope on the bench much of the time. He did come back and nail a 3 at the buzzer, giving Georgia a five-point halftime lead.

Then in the second half Georgia pushed the lead to 10, powered by Charles Mann (a steal and assist), Brandon Morris (a steal and layup), and Donte’ Williams (an alley-oop dunk).

More important was Nemanja Djurisic: The sophomore forward drilled two 3s in the second half, each snuffing out brief runs by Kentucky.

“Nemi coming in and shooting the ball is great for us,” Brantley said. “He really had me jumping.”

Kentucky’s problem was 3-point shooting: It was 6-for-26, and its failure to hit a big shot down the stretch prevented it from being close.

And Georgia put it away because of great free throw shooting: The Bulldogs were 27-for-34 from the line, with Williams going 8-for-8.

“This is a relatively young basketball team. Most of our minutes are playing by freshmen and sophomores,” Fox said. “But we’ve begun to grow up, and show some signs of maturity. When we started slow it was nobody’s undoing but our own. My fault as the coach, our responsibility as a team and players. But when we started slow we didn’t quit. We stayed the course because we knew there were some bumps in the road. Some people got negative, and that comes with the territory. But this team kept plugging along and I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made.”

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