Georgia hangs tight early, loses to Kentucky at Rupp Arena

Georgia's Aaron Cook (10) looks for a shot while guarded by Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Kentucky won 92-77. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Credit: James Crisp

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Georgia's Aaron Cook (10) looks for a shot while guarded by Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Kentucky won 92-77. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Credit: James Crisp

Credit: James Crisp

Georgia returned to the place where it never had luck. Rupp Arena is the place where Kentucky powerhouse teams are known to dominate, and a house of horrors for the Bulldogs. They hadn’t won on this hardwood in nearly 13 years, despite a number of close calls.

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Not many outside of Georgia’s locker room, however, expected this iteration of Tom Crean’s team to put up any fight Saturday evening. The five-win Bulldogs have been written off by those in the sport after losses to Gardner-Webb, George Mason and Wofford. Georgia ranked No. 241 in the latest release of KenPom rankings, and its appearance in the Associated Press poll came as a mistake when a voter meant to rank Gonzaga. The team of transfers might not be favorites in any of its SEC games, and traveled to Lexington as 23-point underdogs.

After clawing back from an 18-point deficit Tuesday and nearly defeating Texas A&M, however, these Bulldogs were confident. Senior guard Aaron Cook said Tuesday night that Georgia has “the pieces to win.”

Rupp Arena brought Georgia another block in its building process rather than the usual nightmare.

“I think the story is going to change eventually,” Cook said. “The mindset is to stay together even when things aren’t going right.”

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Kentucky's Tyty Washington Jr. (3) drives as Georgia's Tyron McMillan (4) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Credit: James Crisp

Kentucky's Tyty Washington Jr. (3) drives as Georgia's Tyron McMillan (4) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Credit: James Crisp

caption arrowCaption
Kentucky's Tyty Washington Jr. (3) drives as Georgia's Tyron McMillan (4) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Credit: James Crisp

Credit: James Crisp

Georgia (5-10, 0-2 SEC) lost to the 16th-ranked Wildcats, 92-77, but the early stages of Saturday’s loss had a much-different feel than any of its previous nine. The Bulldogs felt energized, unfazed and far from intimidated against Kentucky. A team notoriously known for slow starts jumped to a quick lead and held a lead for the majority of the first half against the Wildcats.

“I hope they weren’t surprised we played well in the first half,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said. “I wasn’t. … We don’t need to let anybody on the outside define us, that’s what I keep telling (the players). This is a league we can win in. We have to have some better results and things go right for us, but we were efficient and in attack mode.

“I like the way we’re getting better. I like the way we work. We need something to go right for us, so they can see that it’s achievable.”

Cook opened play by scoring the Bulldogs’ first seven points, then the other Bulldogs scorers joined in. Noah Baumann, who has cracked the starting lineup, made two 3-pointers and finished with 10 points in the first half.

Kario Oquendo started the half scoreless and took only one shot, then he went on a run that allowed Georgia to take a couple of leads in a back-and-forth half of basketball. He lead the team in scoring with 22 points. Georgia shot 52% through 20 minutes of play, made four 3-pointers and limited costly turnovers.

Kentucky 92, Georgia 77

After the intermission, though, the gap in talent began to show and Georgia’s moments of contention against Kentucky quickly faded. The Bulldogs avoided having to face their former guard Sahvir Wheeler, who missed Saturday’s game with a neck injury, but it didn’t matter over the second half as Kentucky dominated.

Kentucky walloped Georgia because of the presence of Oscar Tshiebwe. A 6-foot-9, 255-pound center who towered over any Bulldog to see the floor, Tshiebwe posted 29 points and 17 rebounds. TyTy Washington set a program single-game record with 17 assists. Kentucky shot 63% in the second half, and Georgia’s defense continued to falter.

“There was a three-minute stretch in the second half where we didn’t get back,” Crean said. “The first five to eight minutes of the half are always important. When our results are bad, there’s always a three-to-four minute stretch that gets us. We have to be able to overcome it. We just do.”

Davion Mintz punished Georgia from beyond the 3-point line, too, as 11 of his 19 points came after the intermission. The Bulldogs lacked defensive intensity as many of the Wildcats’ late looks were open, which allowed the deficit to swell.

“It was the transition defense that hurt us,” Crean said. “They have as good of a running game as anybody in the country. It might’ve been better tonight, because you’ve got five guys who can score.”

The Bulldogs are without every starter from a season ago, the injury bug has provided more attrition and Dalen Ridgnal and Cam McDowell also missed Saturday’s game. A rebuilding Georgia could face some ugly results throughout a grueling conference stretch.

Georgia couldn’t match Kentucky on Saturday, and it didn’t come close. At least for a while, however, the Bulldogs showed signs of life and growth in the place where powerhouses continue to dominate.

“I thought we wore them down a little bit,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Tom is doing a heck of a job with this team.”