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Georgia bursts Kentucky's NCAA tournament bubble

 Charles Vaughan   in Basketball

Powered by dynamic guard play and impressive free throw shooting, the Georgia Bulldogs (15-10, 5-7 SEC) pulled out a 75-68 win over the Kentucky Wildcats (16-9, 7-5) Sunday morning in Athens. 

Georgia got a 21-point, zero-turnover afternoon from guard Kario Oquendo, a 15-point game from guard Justin Hill, and a nine-point game from guard Terry Roberts in his return from a concussion. Forward Braelen Bridges turned in a 12-point, five-rebound outing. The Bulldogs shot a below-average 40.7% from the field but only turned it over seven times and went 25-29 from the free throw line.

The Wildcats, missing starter CJ Frederick and sixth man Sahvir Wheeler, were paced by 20 points from guard Antonio Reeves. Guard Cason Wallace, coming off back-to-back 20-point games, was held to just five points. Kentucky center Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning National Player of the Year, finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds, productive but a step down from his monstrous 37-point, 24-rebound effort in Kentucky’s January win over Georgia. UK outrebounded UGA and only turned the ball over 9 times, but went cold late and got to the free throw line 16 fewer times than Georgia.

The Bulldogs took control early, jumping out to a 13-5 lead in front of an energetic home crowd. Kentucky had trouble finding an offensive rhythm and made only one field goal in the first eight minutes of the contest. 

The Wildcats clawed back into the game late in the first half, taking a 23-22 lead off a Jacob Toppin jumper, but Georgia immediately went on an Oquendo-powered run. The junior guard scored twelve points in the last five minutes of the half, sending the Stegeman Coliseum crowd into a frenzy and giving the Dogs a 42-32 advantage at the break.

In the first meeting between these two squads, Kentucky blew Georgia out despite the Bulldogs leading at halftime. This game felt like more of the same - when the second half whistles blew, UK immediately erased their ten-point deficit and regained a four-point lead. However, Georgia proved they had learned their lesson and stuck with the Wildcats, never letting the lead balloon. Kentucky let the pressure get to them, making only one field goal from the eight-minute mark to the two-minute mark. 

Timely threes from Justin Hill and Jabri Abdur-Rahim gave the Bulldogs a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Bubble Trouble

UK’s disappointing year hit its nadir Sunday morning, with ESPN’s Joe Lunardi claiming that this loss “torpedoes Kentucky’s season” and puts the Wildcats squarely out of the tournament picture. Most bracket projections had Kentucky on the very edge of the bubble, and after today Big Blue will likely have to go undefeated the rest of the season. 

An important factor in tournament selection is the NET, an advanced rating system that ranks every college basketball team and categorizes them into quadrants. Quad 1 games are games against the upper echelon of NCAA teams and are crucial in impressing the selection committee. Kentucky is already an unimpressive 1-7 in Quad 1 games and now has a loss to Georgia, NET’s 129th-rated team. The Wildcats’ resume is beginning to lag behind other potential bubble teams and they now need to sweep a stretch of games that includes Arkansas, Tennessee, and Auburn.

If UK misses out on the tournament, it will mark the second time in three years the team won’t participate in March Madness. A stretch like that is nearly unprecedented in Kentucky basketball history, with the 1989-1991 teams the last to accomplish the ignominious feat. The Cats haven’t won a tournament game since March 29, 2019.

What This Means for Georgia

Today’s victory was crucial for a Georgia team that had lost three in a row and six of its last seven. UGA no longer has a chance at an at-large bid, but seeding is crucial in the frantic sprint that is the SEC Tournament. Seeds eleven through fourteen will have to play an extra game in Nashville, and Georgia is now 5-7 in conference play, good for tenth out of fourteen. Although they’re hanging on by a thread, the Dogs are still firmly in competition for a top-ten seed.

This win rivals Auburn and Mississippi State as UGA’s best under Mike White. Although Kentucky is not the national championship contender they usually are, Georgia had just two victories against the Wildcats since 2012 coming into today. The game was following the same script as the first matchup - Georgia leads Kentucky but loses control after halftime - but the Bulldogs rallied and turned the tables. This is a culture-builder for the new administration.

Stagnant Playmaking

Kentucky was clearly affected by injuries today, and it showed. Missing CJ Frederick and Sahvir Wheeler, both of whom are averaging over 20 minutes a game, the Wildcats were forced to play what was essentially a five-man rotation. The starters all played 28 minutes or more, with Antonio Reeves never being subbed out at all. Little-used Daimion Collins racked up four fouls in eight minutes, limiting the Wildcats’ options even more.

Freshman guard Cason Wallace, who many thought had turned a corner for good after combining for 44 points in UK’s last two games, showed his youth against the Bulldogs. Although he finished with a team-high six assists, he was clearly rattled by the Georgia defense and continuously passed up shooting even when open. Not counting a garbage-time dunk, Wallace finished with just two points on 1-7 shooting. 

Due to Wallace’s struggles, Reeves and Toppin were shouldered with most of the playmaking load. Although they were efficient from three-point range, they just couldn’t get the looks they wanted from the midrange. Tshiebwe had a solid outing but, in credit to Mike White’s game planning, didn’t affect the game anywhere near as much as he did the first time these teams met.

Bulldog Backcourt

Georgia’s guards, after an erratic few weeks, played their best collective game of February. 

Oquendo had one of his better games as a Bulldog, with his 21 points one point away from his season high. Although he shot just 12.5% from the three point line, Oquendo efficiently worked his way into the lane and drew six fouls. He finished 10-12 from the free throw line and didn’t turn the ball over once despite handling it often.

Hill was Georgia’s primary playmaking force, scoring 15 points of his own but also finishing with a team-high six assists. Although he was out of control at times, many of Georgia’s most successful offensive possessions came from sets where Hill touched the ball.

Despite being unlisted in this morning’s lineup, Roberts checked in as a substitute and had a solid, productive game. Obviously still working off the rust from the two games he missed, Roberts wasn’t the dynamic force he usually is, but still finished with nine points, two assists, a steal, and only one turnover. He made a late transition layup off a Justin Hill steal that extended the Georgia lead.

Abdur-Rahim was quietly efficient, hitting three out of four threes and finishing with the highest offensive rating of any Bulldog. He also threw in a block and a rebound and didn’t turn the ball over.

What’s Next

Kentucky finishes the last leg of its road trip Wednesday in Starkville, then goes home to face juggernaut Tennessee. The Cats will close out the season with home games against Auburn and Vanderbilt and road games against Florida and Arkansas.

Georgia plays LSU in Athens on Tuesday before heading off on a brutal road trip against Alabama and Arkansas. They’ll close out the season with home games against Missouri and Florida and an away game against South Carolina.