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Cats revert to old ways, but make plays down the stretch to beat Georgia in SEC opener

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Kentucky’s Sacha Killeya-Jones blocks a shot during Kentucky’s 66-61 win over Georgia Sunday night at Rupp Arena. Jones finished with a pair of rebounds. (Photo by Elliott Hess | UK Athletics)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky took a step back in its Southeastern Conference opener, but did just enough to hold off Georgia, escaping with a 66-61 victory over the Bulldogs Sunday night at Rupp Arena.

Coming off a 90-61 victory over rival Louisville, the Wildcats struggled and led for just more than six minutes against the Bulldogs, overcoming a poor first-half performance that irked Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Kentucky missed its first six field goal attempts and Georgia led for most of the first half and built an eight-point lead, as the Wildcats struggled to regain their footing following the blowout win over the Cardinals.

“That was as selfish as any of my teams have played in a while in that first half,” Calipari said. “I got to say this and you guys know Mark (Fox) and I are friends, but this is the third game we were very lucky. He came in with an unbelievable game plan, had his team ready to beat us.”

Fox credited Kentucky’s ability to make clutch plays in the closing minutes to secure the win.

“We’ve had a lot of good games with Kentucky,” said Fox, whose team has lost 10 straight to the Wildcats. “They made the plays that they needed to make to win the game. We had one little stretch where we didn’t take care of it in the second half and we lost our lead.”

Unlike the Louisville encounter, Calipari said the Wildcats played as individuals as opposed to a team unit, especially in the first half.

“Every guy was trying to score,” he said. “You know what a ball stopper is when you’re on offense? The ball, beep, beep, and that guy get it and he goes like that and tries that — well we had three ball stoppers. It was going to a guy and he held it. Three guys guarding him, I’m shooting it anyway.

“How about the easy pass up the court to the guy? Nah, I’m going to wait. Then our point guard was dribbling the length of the floor and trying to shoot it. He did. Guys ahead, he just dribbled the length of the court and he got fouled, so he thought he was good. Wait a minute. Every guy on the team and no one’s passing because we’re playing this way.”

In order to get a better understanding of a team concept, Calipari plans to use a passing drill during practice before departing for Tuesday’s night’s contest against LSU in Baton Rouge.

“We’re going to do 10 passes, you must pass, you cannot dribble,” Calipari said. “You must get open and pass the ball. They’re going to think it’s boring. This is boring. But we got to pass to each other, we got to create shots for each other. We’re good enough to do that.”

The Bulldogs, coming off a nine-day layoff, nearly snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Wildcats, but Kentucky had just enough left in the tank to prevent a total meltdown on the final day of 2017. Kentucky shot a season-low 31 percent from the field, including a 21 percent clip in the opening half.

“Until I watch the tape I don’t even know how we won this game,” Calipari said. “We shot 20 percent in the half. We didn’t show them any video (at halftime), I said if you don’t pass the ball to each other we’re not winning anyway.”

Thanks to another 20-point performance by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Wildcats didn’t fold down the stretch. Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored a season-high 24 points in the win over Louisville, came off the bench and tallied 21 against the Bulldogs.

“He’s our best player,” Calipari said. “The greatest thing about him, he’s coming off the bench and not saying anything. Don’t worry about his shots or anything, he’s just playing. Smiles the whole game. We’ve got some guys with the weight of the world on their shoulders, (that has) got to stop.”

Although not perfect, Calipari liked the way his squad executed down the stretch and made just enough free throws to maintain the lead and prevent a dramatic finish.

“We made the plays we had to make,” Calipari said. “Missed some free throws. But again, well, you missed free throws, wrong guys at the line. If Quade or Shai is at the line, we’re making eight out of nine. We got some other guys who are going to have to prove late in the game that we can go at them.”

Calipari hopes the narrow win will be a learning experience similar to his team’s growth following an 83-75 loss to UCLA in Dec. 23 in the CBS Sports Classic in New Orleans. The Bruins knocked down 12 shots from long range in what Calipari called a game of H-O-R-S-E.

“The 12 threes that they shot, we were nowhere in sight,” Calipari said. “Now you see us running at people. You see us running through. We’re desperate to get to the guy versus, wow, he got that shot. We’re now in a desperate mode. We’re practicing that way. The guys are getting to three-point shooters. Now there were some threes that were open today that they missed, but there were a bunch that were covered.”

Calipari is just glad the Wildcats won’t have to deal with the Bulldogs again during the regular season.

“I’m happy we’re not playing them again unless it’s post-season — we’re done,” he said. “Because every time we play them it is just like this. If you remember the game down at Georgia, they’re up, we’re up, they’re up, we’re up, they’re up, we’re up, we’re up, they’re up, they’re up, they’re up, they’re up, we’re up and we make it down the stretch, we make a play.”

Sometimes that’s all it takes even on an off-night.

Gametracker: Kentucky at LSU, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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