March 7, 2013

Dawgs show some bite

The young pups who make up the majority of Georgia's basketball team are starting to grow some fangs.

With the SEC Tournament set to tip off next week in Nashville, that may be troubling news for the rest of the league.

Thursday night at Stegeman Coliseum, the Bulldogs accomplished a feat not many thought possible when the season began, win nine conference games punctuated by their 72-62 victory over perennial SEC power Kentucky.

"We have begun to grow up and show some signs of maturity. When we started slow (2-7), it was nobody's undoing but our own. It was my fault as the coach, it was our responsibility as a team and players," said head coach Mark Fox, whose team evened its record at 15-15, 9-8 in the SEC. "But when we started slow, we didn't quit because we knew there would be some bumps in the road. Some people got negative and that comes with the territory, but we kept plugging along and I'm proud of the progress we've made."

Color Kentucky head coach John Calipari impressed with what he's seen from the Bulldogs.

While disappointed in the performance of his defending national champs, Calipari had plenty of kind words for Fox and the job he's done at the Bulldog coach.

"I called Mark Fox several weeks ago and told him what a great job he was doing with his team. I told him that it was unbelievable. His star is being his star, and every other kid is doing what he is supposed to do," Calipari said. "They're defending, they're playing tough with low turnovers, and it's just good stuff. This is like Coach of the Year stuff that he's doing here."

Although Calipari's comments may lean toward hyperbole, there's no doubt Georgia is showing positive signs.

The Bulldogs have gone 13-8 since their 2-7 start, a streak that now includes their first victory over Kentucky (20-10, 11-6) since 2011. It was also the first time Georgia has beaten the Wildcats by 10 or more points since 1996.

"Winning always feels good, so it feels great to win tonight," senior Vincent Williams said. "Later in the year, this is the time when you're supposed to be more comfortable. Everybody is shooting the ball; everybody is making plays."

That's a fact has not been lost on Fox.

Although sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope enjoyed another stellar game, earning his sixth career double-double with 24 points and 10 rebounds. Against Kentucky, the Bulldogs received plenty of offensive help all across the board.

Nemanja Djurisic was solid, scoring 12 points and pulling down six rebounds while Donte Williams chipped in with 10.

"Kentavious was playing too aggressive early in the season. He's calmed down and become a much more efficient player. When your best player doesn't play well, everyone else is on edge and the young guys weren't comfortable," Fox said. "They are more comfortable on the floor now so we are able to have better possessions and fewer turnovers. Against a good defensive team tonight, we didn't finish with the percentage we wanted to but we got to the line and played some pretty smart basketball the second half."

Archie Goodwin scored 20 points for Kentucky, which shot just 37.1 percent from the field (23-for-62) and trailed in the second half by as many as 14 points, 68-54 with 2:08 to play.

The nationally televised audience on ESPN saw Georgia put what would seem to be a crimp into Kentucky's NCAA Tournament plans, although Fox wasn't buying into that suggestion.

"I've got no joy in that. This is the SEC. Kentucky belongs in the tournament. You kidding? They've got 20 wins already and belong in the NCAA Tournament," Fox said. "You can say what you want about all these teams in the country. This league is relatively young. In the last two years, we've lost two players to the NBA Draft, Vandy's lost players, Kentucky's lost multiple players, Florida's lost multiple players to the NBA Draft; we're just young. It doesn't mean the league's not talented, it's just young. It's gotten better, better and better.

"No one wants to play Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament, I wouldn't want to play Kentucky, but they belong in there. There are teams in this league that are a lot better than the respect they're getting from the national media and hopefully we'll have a chance to prove it."

Georgia showed early on that it wasn't about to be intimated by the perennial SEC powerhouse.

Kentucky started quickly, jumping out to an 11-5 lead before the Bulldogs went on a 10-3 run to go up 15-14 on a short jumper by Djurisic at the 9:26 mark.

The Wildcats reclaimed a brief 16-15 advantage, but once again Georgia would answer.

This time, using a couple of free throws by Caldwell-Pope to put Georgia back in front 23-18. There would be more from Caldwell-Pope later.

But first it was Kentucky, which climbed back within one at 25-24 until a pair of 3-pointers in the final 38 seconds of the half sent the Bulldogs into the locker room up 31-26, including one by from 25 feet that Caldwell-Pope rattled in right at the buzzer.

Georgia wraps up the regular season Saturday when the Bulldogs travel to Alabama.