The Kentucky Wildcats walked into Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday afternoon widely regarded as one of the “last four teams” in the NCAA Tournament projections.
They walked out likely on the wrong side of the bracketology bubble.
Kentucky dropped its second consecutive game — this one to Georgia by a 75-68 score — and will need to put in some work over the next few weeks to resuscitate its 2022-23 season.
Oscar Tshiebwe broke out of a mini-slump and logged 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. Antonio Reeves tallied 20 points and kept the Cats close early on with his outside shooting.
It wasn’t enough for Kentucky to escape Athens with a much-needed victory.
There are no truly “must-win” games at this point in the college basketball season, especially for a team like Kentucky, which came into Saturday on the right side — but just barely — of the tournament bubble. The Cats obviously aren’t eliminated from March consideration with their latest defeat, but they dug themselves a deeper hole to climb out of by dropping this game.
UK played without senior guards CJ Fredrick and Sahvir Wheeler — both were sidelined with injuries — and Coach John Calipari will surely bring up that point as Selection Sunday nears and the bubble discussion over UK’s résumé continues. Still, the Cats were listed as seven-point favorites over the Bulldogs after the news of those injuries became public.
This was a game UK was expected to win.
Georgia (15-10, 5-7 SEC) came into the day ranked 123rd nationally on KenPom.com and No. 129 in the NCAA’s NET ratings. Kentucky had defeated the Bulldogs 85-71 three and a half weeks earlier in Lexington, the second victory in what would become a six-game SEC winning streak for the Wildcats, who have now lost two straight in the league.
UK dropped to 16-9 overall and 7-5 in the conference.
Almost immediately, the Cats found themselves playing from behind.
Kario Oquendo threw down a dunk less than a minute after the noon tipoff, and the Dogs controlled much of the first half. Kentucky missed its first six shots from the field and 13 of its first 14 field-goal attempts. A three-pointer from Reeves was the only UK make in the first eight-plus minutes of the game, and the senior guard kept the score close with five of the Wildcats’ first six made field goals.
With Georgia also struggling from the floor, the Cats actually briefly took a 23-22 lead on a Jacob Toppin jumper with about six minutes left in the first half. That UK advantage lasted just nine seconds.
In addition to the shooting woes, Cason Wallace — the Cats’ only point guard with Wheeler sidelined — picked up his second foul with 16:35 left in the first half, pushing seldom-used freshman Adou Thiero into action at the position. Calipari did play Wallace in spurts later in the half, but the star freshman logged just eight minutes on the court before halftime. He finished with just five points.
A late flurry from Georgia gave the Bulldogs a 42-32 lead at the break.
The Wildcats climbed themselves out of that hole, too, taking a 49-48 lead off a Toppin jumper with 12:47 left and extending the advantage to 52-48 off a Toppin three a minute later.
Georgia answered that with a 7-0 run. The Cats stuck around for the next few minutes, but they never led again.
A little while after that 7-0 run, UGA’s Braelen Bridges made an and-one play over Tshiebwe to give the Dogs a 59-54 lead and hang the fourth foul on UK’s star player with 5:22 left. Tshiebwe stayed in the game for Kentucky and made some big plays down the stretch, but it wasn’t enough to save the Wildcats.
UK ended up shooting 25-for-65 from the field, just 38.5 percent.
Kentucky’s tournament résumé took a major hit with the loss to Georgia — a Quad 2 defeat, by the NCAA’s standards — but UK still has plenty of opportunities to make an impression on the selection committee.
Of the Wildcats’ six remaining games, four will be counted as Quad 1 matchups, and another — a home game against Auburn later this month — could easily be in that category by the end of the season. UK is currently 1-7 in such games, and the Cats likely will need to be near flawless for the rest of the regular season.
Both of Kentucky’s games next week — at Mississippi State on Wednesday; Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday — will count as Quad 1 games.
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