William Jackson II rushed up the court, got space from his defender and buried a three to give Georgia a seven-point lead with two minutes and 16 seconds left in the first half. The small portion of Bulldog fans in Bridgestone Arena shouted with excitement while a barrage of four red jerseys hopped up from the bench and proceeded to the scorers table — all bouncing with energy and confidence.
UK was on its heels.
Every time it seemed the Cats were about to make a run and bring things back to reality, a Georgia platoon dribbled down the court, ran an offensive-set and watched another shot fill the basket.
“(Georgia head coach Mark Fox) totally changed how they were going to play because he knew it was their third game in three days,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “They went right after us inside. They put us in pick-and-rolls with our fives and let their guards go.”
This wasn’t unfamiliar territory for UK, though. It’s been here before. This happened back on Dec. 3 against UCLA, on Jan. 5 against LSU, on Feb. 27 against Vanderbilt and in just about all eight of the Cats’ losses this season.
The bigs get in early foul trouble, which leads to UK getting out-rebounded and outscored in the paint, and the team starts to rely on Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray for scoring.
At one point in the first half, Georgia found itself up by double-digits and shooting 71 percent from the floor. The Dawgs were playing their best basketball of the season.
But the Cats wouldn’t fold.
“We were built for this,” UK senior Alex Poythress said. “We needed a tough game like this.”
A six-point Georgia lead quickly simmered to one after Poythress scored with his back to the basket and followed on the next possession with another nifty move in the post. The senior flipped a switch for what seemed like the first time this year and Calipari noticed.
“He gave us a goose egg in the first half,” Calipari said. “He now begins to say, ‘Okay, let me get this going.’ Well, he’s not done that throughout his career. So this was a big day for Alex.”
Two minutes later, the 5-foot-9 point guard knocked down a three to bring UK within one yet again. Derek Willis blocked Georgia’s next shot, Ulis let another three-pointer fly, only to find teammate Isaiah Briscoe under the basket corralling his miss and scoring the put-back plus the foul.
The sequence gave UK a 68-67 lead with 8:16 to play, its first lead since 5:33 in the first half — a lead UK would not surrender the rest of the game. Cats fans in Bridgestone Arena went crazy.
They had done it. The Cats faced adversity in the postseason and handled it like a Final Four-caliber team.
And it wasn’t just the usual stars who stepped up when the going got tough. It was Briscoe. It was Charles Matthews. It was Derek Willis. There was nothing Calipari saw from his team’s second half performance that could have rattled him.
“I love what I saw. I loved the fact that Isaiah should not have played but about three minutes, and Charles went in and played so well and helped us,” Calipari said. “Love the fact that Skal (Labissiere) struggled and we went with a different lineup, and we played fine.”
UK answered the bell. It rose to the occasion. Now it gets Texas A&M in the SEC Championship game on Sunday, where the Cats will be ready for another war.