ATHENS — There came a moment in the first half when you saw just what it means to subsist mostly on effort. The ball went out of bounds in front of the visting bench. Four Georgia Bulldogs bent over and made the universal gesture for “I’m tired” — they grabbed the front of their baggy shorts.
And right then you knew. Technically the Bulldogs were hanging with Kentucky, but you knew they wouldn’t hang much longer. They’d played about as hard and as well as they could, and there have been nights this winter when such an effort would have sufficed. But this time Georgia was up against a team that can take inspired efforts and trump them with sheer talent.
With 8-1/2 minutes left in the first half, Georgia led by six points. Three minutes into the second half, it trailed by 16. The Bulldogs had done everything right early — they’d pounded the ball inside and flown after offensive rebounds and gotten two quick fouls on the massive DeMarcus Cousins — and then they looked up and the game was gone.
Mark Fox has done brilliant work with these Bulldogs, but John Wooden and Dean Smith working in cahoots wouldn’t have outflanked Kentucky over 40 minutes this night. Georgia has two really good players. Kentucky has four, five, six, seven …
“You have to play darn near perfect,” Fox said afterward, his Bulldogs a 12-point loser. “If you can’t match them either in size or in quickness, you have to play darn near perfect.”
Georgia had a chance to draw even late in the first half, but Ricky McPhee, the former walk-on playing his final home game, was called for walking, and DeAndre Liggins scored on a drive, and the Wildcats were up four at the break. Then the deluge: Kentucky induced six Bulldogs turnovers on the second half’s first six possessions.
Fox: “They’re a terrific team. They have terrific players. And Cal [John Calipari] has done a great job organizing his team. They aren’t just good because they have great players.”
Give Georgia credit. Sometimes Kentucky gets bored, but as this first half wore on you could see the Wildcats’ interest being piqued. The Bulldogs were running their sets and making Kentucky shoot over their 2-3 zone, and for 15 minutes you thought, “You know, this might just happen.” But Georgia got tired and the Wildcats got going, and for the first time in a while we were reminded just how much Fox’s overachievers have had to overcome.
Fox mentioned quickness: Kentucky had eight steals and forced 15 turnovers yielding 24 points. Fox mentioned size: Kentucky blocked 14 shots to Georgia’s none. And on a night when Stegeman Coliseum was packed and vibrant — everyone from Charles Barkley to to Charles Claxton to Jim Donnan to Vince Dooley was on hand — the team with star power showed its pedigree.
Fox burned a timeout not 75 seconds into the second half. He’d just seen Cousins — 6-foo-11, 270 pounds — steal a pass and lead the break and duck down the lane to score. The coach could have called 15 timeouts and done nothing to halt this.
A minute later, Cousins led another break and fed Patrick Patterson for a layup. It’s not enough that Kentucky has John Wall, the nation’s finest point guard. It also has a center who can, when the mood strikes, act like a point guard. About all Georgia has is Trey Thompkins, who made as many fouls as baskets, and Travis Leslie, who worked so hard he needed an IV to fend off cramps.
“There’s no shame in losing to a terrific team like Kentucky,” Fox said, and there isn’t. Three months ago we wouldn’t have expected Georgia to stay within 20 points of the Wildcats on any floor. On this night the Bulldogs were beaten by 12 but made the nation’s No. 3 team work to do it. As strange as it might sound, that’s progress.