Georgia basketball looks to conquer mighty Kentucky at Rupp Arena

Georgia's Noah Thomasson (3) looks to pass around Missouri's Nick Honor (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia's Noah Thomasson (3) looks to pass around Missouri's Nick Honor (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ATHENS – “Road Dawgs!”

That was the simple social-media message posted by Georgia seniors Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Noah Thomasson simultaneously in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. It was delivered during their three-hour bus ride home from Columbia after they had contributed to the Bulldogs’ 74-69 win over South Carolina at Colonial Life Arena.

In deference to Adam “Road Dawg” Gillespie, the Georgia Sports Radio Network’s engineer who goes by that name, it’s a fitting distinction for this team. Vanquishing the Gamecocks represented Georgia’s third road victory of the season against no losses. The Bulldogs also defeated Florida State 68-66 in Tallahassee on Nov. 29 and won at Missouri 75-68 in the SEC opener Jan. 6.

For perspective, Georgia (13-4, 3-1 SEC) won on an opposing team’s home floor once last season and was 1-20 the previous two seasons. They’re one of five teams among 362 in Division I to remain undefeated on the road at this point. Those marks don’t include games played at neutral sites.

That unblemished road mark will be put to the ultimate test Saturday as Georgia visits No. 8 Kentucky (12-3, 3-1) at Rupp Arena. While other home courts have come and gone as notoriously tough places to play, a win over the Wildcats at Rupp remains the Holy Grail of SEC basketball accomplishment.

The Bulldogs have done it only five times in their 103-year association with Kentucky. The last time they were able to pull it off was in 2009, and that came in an unlikely scenario. Georgia went there with two SEC victories under interim coach Pete Herrmann — who replaced Dennis Felton a month earlier — on March 9 of that year in the final game of the regular season and shocked the Wildcats 90-85.

Since then, the Bulldogs are 0-11 in that downtown Lexington building. Typically, the games haven’t been close. Kentucky’s average margin of victory since ‘09 has been 15.4 points. Georgia lost there 85-71 last year, though it did lead by 11 at one point in the first half.

“We have to continue to stay the course in terms of our mentality on the road,” said Georgia coach Mike White, who won twice at Rupp with the Florida Gators. “We’re going to have to catch some breaks, of course, and make some shots, and the ball’s got to bounce our way. We’ve got to stay out of foul trouble. Good things have to happen for us, especially early.”

The Bulldogs (13-4, 3-1 SEC) are a completely different team in Year 2 under White. They have been remade through the addition of nine newcomers and the continued development of returnees such as Abdur-Rahim.

The only Bulldog with three years in the program, Abdur-Rahim’s steady improvement in the areas of 3-point and free-throw shooting are reflective of Georgia’s ability to win on the road. The senior wing leads the SEC from the free-throw line (.889) and ranks 11th from behind the arc (.415). And while the Bulldogs measure only 10th in the league from the free-throw line (71.4%) as a team, it’s Abdur-Rahim and teammates such as RJ Melendez (.872) who are finding themselves at the charity stripe in pivotal moments of games.

It was freshman Silas Demary Jr. who was getting it done in the clutch against the Gamecocks. The 6-foot-5 freshman and 17-game starter scored a career-high 15 points, made nine of 12 free throws – including several down the stretch – and added seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals to help close the win.

“I haven’t had a freshman any more physically and mentally tough than him,” White said after the game. “By the end of the year I might say he’s No. 1. He’s definitely in the conversation. … He continues to help us get stops, defending the glass and flying around. The ball security, too, for a true freshman is pretty impressive.”

Georgia holds nothing over the Wildcats, of course, when it comes to basketball talent. Kentucky leads the SEC in scoring at 90.8 points per game and ranks second in the league from 3-point range (.393). Like Georgia, the Wildcats are guard-oriented. They are paced by 6-5 Antonio Reeves, a fifth-year senior who is the SEC’s third-leading scorer (19.4 ppg) and ninth-best 3-point shooter. He shares a backcourt with another bomber, freshman Reed Sheppard (son of Wildcats great Jeff Sheppard), who is coming off the bench to make a conference-best 53% of his 3-pointers (35-of-66). Rob Dillingham (14.5 ppg) and D.J. Wagner (12.4) make Kentucky a four-guard beast.

“They’re a team that could win the whole thing,” White said of the Wildcats. “If we have a weak link defensively in the game we’ll be exposed immediately. This is an electric offense, as good as any offense in the country. Speed, shooting, 40 (percent) from 3 as a team, 50 from the field, 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover. We’ve got to be as good as we’ve been all year defensively, probably better.”

But the Wildcats are not invulnerable in their 23,500-seat fortress. They’ve already lost there once this season, and it was quite the stunner.

North Carolina-Wilmington won at Rupp 80-73 on Dec. 2. Granted, Kentucky was playing that night without Wagner, the starting point guard. But that contest stands as one of the crazier outcomes so far this season. Four weeks later, the Seahawks (12-5) lost to Arkansas 106-90 in Fayetteville, and they’ve since lost two more Colonial Athletic Association games.

So, it can be done, and the Bulldogs are supremely motivated to be the next team to do so.

“We’re one of the teams in the SEC that has to be reckoned with,” Demary said Tuesday night. “I feel we can be in the top of the SEC. I feel like a lot of people under-look us.”

As good as it has been so far, Georgia remains vigilant as a team. The Bulldogs know they also started the SEC slate 3-1 last season. And like this season, they met Kentucky at Rupp in the fifth conference game. The subsequent 85-71 loss was the first of three consecutive defeats for the Bulldogs and one of 12 in the final 15 games to finish the season 16-16 and miss the postseason for the sixth consecutive season.

This time, the stated goal is to avoid such losing streaks and earn the school’s first NCAA bid in nine years. To do that, they’re going to have to steal a few more wins on the road.

Grabbing one at Rupp certainly would help the cause. The win over the Gamecocks (14-3, 2-2) was Georgia’s first “Quad 1″ win of the season and lifted the Bulldogs to No. 78 in the NET rankings. But they remain 11th in the 14-team SEC.

That, of course, means winning at home as well as on the road. The Bulldogs lost their first game at Stegeman Coliseum this season Saturday, 85-79 to No. 6 Tennessee. Georgia led by 11 late in the second half before it was outscored 15-1 at the end of the game.

But the Bulldogs haven’t gotten where they are at the moment by looking back or far ahead. They’re very much staying in the present, and with a 6 p.m. tipoff at Rupp Arena, that’s plenty to keep Georgia occupied. Thomasson is among the majority of Bulldogs who will be stepping onto that storied court for the first time.

“I feel like Rupp Arena is the Super Bowl of college basketball,” said Thomasson, making his first weekly appearance on “The Morning Show” on Athens radio station 960 The Ref, which he’ll do each Friday. “The ambiance and what they do at home is going to be a good experience for us. Being 1-0 on their court is our only goal Saturday.”

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