The top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats rolled into the Classic City on Tuesday night, and they found Stegeman Coliseum rocking and Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs fired up and ready to play. In the end, though, it didn’t matter, as the visitors justified their ranking in a 57-44 win over the Red and Black.
The Athenians did not go gentle into that good night, however. In the outing’s opening 37 seconds, Terrence Jones gave the visitors a two-point lead and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope tied it up with a jump shot at the other end of the floor. Thanks to three-pointers by Nemanja Djurisic, the home team hung tough, building a 14-11 advantage before the Blue and White went on a 10-0 run to carve out a football-like 21-14 lead.
Ill-considered heaves launched by the Athenians from distant spots on the floor and at inopportune moments on the shot clock allowed the Kentuckians to surge ahead, but the Red and Black otherwise generally played with intelligence as well as intensity in the early going. It was no mystery what kept the Fox Hounds in the game: Georgia stayed with the No. 1 team in the country when securing takeaways, avoiding fouls, pulling down rebounds, driving to the basket, and keeping Kentucky on the perimeter. When the roles were reversed, John Calipari’s team performed exactly as advertised.
Djurisic and Donte` Williams narrowed the deficit to 23-22, but the final six minutes of the first half belonged to the Wildcats, who carried a 38-26 lead into the locker room. The Hoop Dogs, in the meantime, missed 15 shots in the final 14 minutes prior to intermission, eight of which were fired from beyond the arc. Georgia went three of eleven from downtown in the first 20 minutes while draining barely more than one-third of their shots from the field (11 of 30), but the Red and Black had some bright spots before the break, as well. The Bulldogs turned six Kentucky turnovers into an equal number of points, matched the ‘Cats exactly with 14 points in the paint, and corralled the same number of offensive rebounds as the visitors (4).
Unfortunately, the initial 20 minutes also saw the Blue and White bench pour in 19 points while the Wildcats snared 16 defensive boards. That set the tone heading into the second half, which began with the Williams jumper that cut the deficit to ten points but thereafter was followed by a missed Caldwell-Pope three-point try, a Gerald Robinson turnover, and a foul on Caldwell-Pope. Kentucky stretched its lead to 15 points with 17 minutes remaining, and that was the ballgame.
This game was as frustrating as the loss to Ole Miss, but for an entirely different reason. The Hoop Dogs proved at the beginning of the night that they are capable of playing with (quite literally) the best team in the land, but they were unable to hold on despite solid efforts from Djurisic (10 points, 5 rebounds), Robinson (6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 assists), and Dustin Ware (12 points, 2 steals).
There certainly are encouraging signs evident in Stegeman Coliseum, and the crowd there tonight certainly saw them. Coach Fox, who appears so professorial in repose, demonstrated yet again his intensity, once more going off on an inadequate official at courtside while appearing for all the world like a fiery librarian. That energy is translating to Coach Fox’s team, but it is not enough to have heart at the start; this team still needs to learn how to fight to the finish. When the Athenians absorb that lesson and execute it, it will be something to see, indeed, but, though it will happen eventually, I doubt it will happen this year.