It was as valiant of an effort as Georgia could have put forward in a loss.
But Kentucky, loaded with star-studded talent, was too much to overcome late in the second half. The Wildcats advanced to the SEC Tournament championship game by beating the Bulldogs 93-80 on Saturday.
Georgia (19-13) will now wait to find out whether it sneaks into the NCAA Tournament or if it heads to the more-than-likely destination of the NIT.
The Bulldogs led 49-44 at the half in what amounted to their best 20 minutes of basketball of the season. But after two straight physical games, they just couldn’t withstand the final counterpunches Kentucky (25-8) was able to throw.
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The Wildcats had five players score in double figures, with Jamal Murray leading the way with 26 points. Sophomore forward Yante Maten led Georgia in scoring with 20.
FIVE WHO MATTERED
Maten: At many moments, Maten responded to Kentucky surges with crucial hook shots. He also contributed a 3-pointer in the second half. He finished with 20 points and four rebounds.
Murray: Kentucky’s soon-to-be NBA lottery pick had a huge game. He scored 26 points and hit some big 3-pointers late in the game.
J.J. Frazier: The junior guard battled through an ankle injury and scored 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting. The gutsy effort was tremendous in a game Georgia was very much in until the final four minutes.
Kenny Gaines: Gaines ended with 16 points, with 14 coming in the first half. He was hot from the 3-point line early, but Kentucky paid extra attention to him in the second half.
Tyler Ulis: What can you say about Ulis? There’s a reason the conference's coaches voted him the SEC’s Player of the Year. He hit big shot after big shot, en route to 25 points.
Ulis hit a 3 with just more than four minutes to go in the game, which put Kentucky up by 7. The Bulldogs didn’t have enough in the final stretch of this game to come back, even though they have responded so well to opposing teams’ runs through the past five games.
Too much talent: Mark Fox coached his best game of the season. Georgia played its best game of the season. Yet Kentucky only trailed by five at the half. The Wildcats eventually took control of this game in the final 10 minutes and showed why they will be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament.
Hockey on hardwood: In what amounted to a gutsy and bold strategic decision, Fox went with five-man substitutions every few minutes to keep his players fresh and to disrupt Kentucky with different personnel groupings. The change helped charge Georgia to an incredible start to the game, which carried over into the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Kentucky’s end-game run: With Kentucky in the bonus for the final 12 minutes of the game, Georgia’s defense was unable to play as aggressive as it did in the first half. The Wildcats took advantage and shot the ball at a 55.6 percent clip, with Kentucky’s Alex Poythress scoring eight of his 10 points in the second half.
Frazier’s ankle: In the second half, Frazier hit a floater but injured his left ankle. Initially, he could barely put any weight on his foot and hobbled to the locker room. But at the 12:25 mark of the second half, Frazier came back to the Georgia bench and drew an ovation from his team’s fans. He scored only five of his 19 points after the injury.
Streak snapped: Georgia has been playing its best basketball to close the year. But the loss to Kentucky snapped a five-game winning streak, dating back to a win over Mississippi on Feb. 27.
Shooting percentages: Georgia was on fire to start the game as it ended the first-half by making 61.3 percent of its shots. In the second half, that number plummeted to 34.6 percent. For the game, Georgia shot the ball at a 49.1 percent clip. Georgia cooled off down the stretch as it missed nine of its final 11 field goals.
THEY SAID IT
Fox on his team’s effort in the loss: “I love our team, and our team has great character, great competitive spirit, and we made a lot of plays until about the last eight minutes. So I think that we felt like this was a game we could and should win, and we didn’t. We just couldn’t close it.”
Frazier on the ankle injury: “I was on a break. I made a move and planted wrong, rolled a little bit. And I just couldn’t get it loose again. It didn’t really affect me too much, but I just wasn’t feeling right.”
Maten on Georgia’s performance: “I think we were doing just about as well as we could do on offense. I think our shot selection was pretty on point, but we needed to get some more stops, and we didn’t do it.”
Georgia will find out its postseason fate on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Will it sneak into the NCAA Tournament or join the NIT field?