Friday, March 6, 2015

Georgia 64 - 72 Kentucky (No. 2,170)

Stegeman Coliseum, on the campus of the University of Georgia, opened in 1964.  I have probably seen UK play something like 30 games there, and very few of those games were memorable.  In 1981, Dominique Wilkins scored 32 points in a game that UK won 71-68 in double overtime.  (I didn't see this game, but I may have heard part of it on the radio.)  In 1994, the Cats lost 94-90 in overtime, as Jared Prickett, Andre Riddick, Walter McCarty, and Gimel Martinez all fouled out.  (I remember being furious with Jeff Sheppard after this game, but I no longer remember why.)  In 1996, the Cats had their toughest SEC game down in Athens, as Georgia Coach Tubby Smith kept it close throughout, losing only 82-77 before a volcanic crowd.  (Tubby ended up taking that Georgia team to the Sweet 16, and this was a big part of why he got the UK job instead of Billy Donovan after the 1997 season).  And that's about it.

(The most memorable game UK ever played at Stegeman was, of course, in the 1971 NCAA Tournament, when Western Kentucky blew out the Cats 107-83.  But I was too young to remember that game.)

Anyway, it's been obvious for awhile that this game was likely to be one of the most significant ever played by the Big Blue in Athens.  Ever since UK's road trip to Florida and LSU, ESPN has been highlighting the game at Georgia as the one UK was most likely to lose in the regular season.  Ken Pomeroy's analysis agreed with ESPN's, and an enormous crowd turned out to see whether the Cats could remain undefeated.  Lots of UK fans from the Atlanta area were there.  Ashley Judd was there.  Charles Barkley was there.  Bill Belichick (!) was there.

And for the first time all year, I was really nervous.  I hadn't been this nervous before a game since UK played Indiana in the 2012 Sweet 16.  I knew that I wanted the Cats to go undefeated, but I didn't know how much I wanted them to do so until about an hour before this game, when I simply couldn't calm down.  It was the sort of evening where all you could do is go down to the rec room and spend a bunch of time fiddling with the TV and the radio before the tip-off.  Finally, Iowa finished beating Indiana and we were ready for the Big Game.

1st Quarter:  Kentucky 16, Georgia 15

Unlike some of the other schools in the SEC, Georgia has no consistent personality -- it reflects its coach at the time.  After watching him for some time, I am convinced that Mark Fox could win a whole lot of games if he could get better players.  The ones he has try really hard, and they do what he says, but they are an odd bunch.  They remind me of the high school teams Mayfield used to have when I was a kid, and all of Mayfield's best basketball players came from the football team.  Mayfield would usually get off to a shaky start, as the football guys adjusted to basketball.  But by the end of the year, they were really tough.  From the beginning, Georgia's guys on the inside pushed back against Kentucky, giving as good as they were getting, and it was clear that this would not be an easy night.

Meanwhile, UK's shooting was off.   The Cats were playing with a lot of energy, and I thought they were on the verge of breaking the game open a few times, but they couldn't make the type of jump shots that they usually get.  At one point, Devin Booker even missed two free throws in a row.  At this point, I resigned myself to a long evening.

2d Quarter:  Georgia 17, Kentucky 16 (Halftime score of 32-all)
Kentucky kept missing shots -- the Cats went 11-33 from the field in the first half -- but continued to pick up effort baskets.  However, UK couldn't make much progress, in large part because it was now clear that something was wrong with the Kentucky defense.  And here I apologize for not knowing more about the technical side of basketball.  I have no idea how you are supposed to guard the pick-and-roll.  When it's working for the offensive team -- as it was Tuesday night -- it looks unstoppable to me, as guys are always breaking clear for layups.  And when it's not working, it just looks like any other offense that doesn't work.

In any event, while I don't know how to stop the pick-and-roll, I'm pretty sure that Coach Calipari does.  Except Tuesday night, the Dawgs kept scoring off of it.  After the game, Calipari said that he was out-coached -- he had come up with some plan to stop Georgia's attack, but the plan had backfired.  Again, I have no clue what he was talking about.  On the message boards, some people said that Georgia was taking advantage of Booker.  Other people said it had something to do with Kentucky either fighting through screens or not fighting through screens.  I don't know what was going on.

I will say this:  for some time now, the Cats have been obsessed with stopping the three-point shot.  I don't blame them -- three-point shots introduce randomness into the game, and why would the number-one team in the country want more randomness?  So the Cats have closely guarded three-point shooters, and this has mostly worked.  Kentucky opponents have made only 27 percent of their three-point attempts this year -- the Cats are second in the country in this category.  And until Tuesday, few teams had found a way to make UK pay for its focus on the perimeter.  But Georgia spread the floor, and its guys kept getting to the rim over and over.  So we were all tied at halftime

3d Quarter:  Georgia 20, Kentucky 15 (Georgia led 52-47 with 10 minutes left)
Here's the thing about trying to go undefeated -- there will come a game where everything goes wrong, where you just have terrible luck.  Think about it like this.  Imagine that you had a 95 percent chance to win every game.  Clearly you are a dominant team -- much better than everyone you play.  And yet, after 40 games, your record will probably be 38-2 (the same record UK finished with in 2012).  Try it for yourself.  Get a 20-sided die.  Designate the number "1" as a loss, and the other 19 numbers as wins.  Now you have a 95 percent chance of victory.  See what sort of winning streaks you get.  Math tells us that a team with a 95 percent chance of victory will go 10-0 only 59.9 percent of the time.  It will go 20-0 only 35.8 percent of the time.  It will go 30-0 only 21.5 percent of the time.  And remember this is pure math -- there are no players to get tired, or nervous, or opposing coaches to come up with a new strategy.  So even if you have a great team, your odds of going undefeated are very low.  We talk about how no one has gone undefeated in D-I college basketball since 1976.  But no one has gone undefeated in Kentucky high school basketball since Brewers did it in 1948.  Going undefeated means not just beating the teams you play -- it means beating the odds.

And in the second half of the Georgia game, the odds seemed to be catching up with Kentucky.  So many shots that have fallen in other gyms, on other days, were rimming out in this game.  Willie Cauley-Stein went 2-7 from the field.  Trey Lyles went 1-5.  Devin Booker went 2-9.  Tyler Ulis went 0-4.  Dakari Johnson went 1-3.  Together, those players made only 6 of 28 shots.  It seems incredible -- but I saw it happen.  Meanwhile, Kentucky still couldn't figure out what to do about Georgia's pick-and-roll attack.  With 13 minutes to go, the score was tied at 43, but then Georgia went on a 7-0 run.  UK cut the lead to 52-47, but with 10 minutes left the Cats were by no means out of the woods.

4th Quarter:  Kentucky 25, Georgia 12 (Kentucky wins 72-64)
Kentucky was reeling and Georgia was rocking.  With 9:12 left, Yante Maten out-jumped the entire UK front line to put back his own jumper and give Georgia a 56-47 lead.  Down 9 with nine minutes to go, UK fought back, quickly cutting the lead to 56-54.  Finally, the UK fans thought, hoping at long last that the Cats were ready to take control of this game.  But Georgia pushed back again, and the Dawgs led 62-56 with 5 and a half minutes to go.  A long jumper by Andrew Harrison was no good, and now the Dawgs had the ball and the lead.

Now at this point, according to Ken Pomeroy, UK only had a 23.4 percent chance of victory.  That is the lowest chance of victory UK has had at any point in any game all year.  On television, Jay Bilas was saying that Georgia needed to add some points to its lead, and it seemed likely that their pick-and-roll would work yet again.  Sure enough, there went Georgia guard Charles Mann down the lane.  But something went wrong (I don't know what) and suddenly Willie Cauley-Stein had the ball.

(Think, for a moment, about the enormous pressure that comes with playing for Kentucky.  Think about what it would be like to be 29-0, but down six on the road against a stubborn Georgia team.  A great defensive play has given you the ball, but what do you do now?  On a night where everything has gone wrong, wouldn't you want to play it safe?  Of course you would.  But that's the difference between you and the Harrisons.)

Now many things started happening at once.  As soon as the ball disappeared into Cauley-Stein's giant hands, Aaron Harrison started racing for the Georgia basket.  WCS flipped the ball to Andrew Harrison, who launched a bomb from just in front of UK's goal to his brother, now streaking down the other end of the floor.  Aaron caught the ball in stride and never slowed down.  As he went up to lay the ball in, Kenny Gaines of Georgia came flying in to smack him in the face.  Aaron collapsed in a heap under the basket.  The ball bounced off the back rim, then the front rim, and then went through the basket.  It was a stunning, amazing play.  And it took only two seconds.

Aaron missed the free throw, but Dakari Johnson took the attentions of two Georgia Bulldogs -- which left Cauley-Stein to collect the rebound and DUNK it.  In only two seconds of game time, the Cats had gone from six down (without the ball) to only two down.

Georgia, proceeding cautiously, held the ball for 24 seconds before the officials (who did not have a great night) called Ulis for a touch foul about 25 feet from the basket.  However, Charles Mann missed the front end of the one-and-one.  Now the Cats were on the attack, and Aaron Harrison fought his way through the Georgia defense for a short bank shot to tie the game at 62 with 3:52 left.

Now the pressure was squarely on Georgia.  For the first time all night, the hunters had become the hunted.  With 3:25 left in the game, Aaron Harrison came up with another steal.  Foul on Georgia.  Media timeout.  And when Kentucky came out of the timeout, it was clear that Calipari had laid down the law:  no more three-pointers.  No more corner jumpers.  The Cats had to score, and the Cats were going to live and die with Karl-Anthony Towns.  Of all the Cats, only Towns and the Harrisons had played well.  Only foul trouble had slowed Towns, and now the Cats were counting on him to win the game.  He took the ball at the top of the key, dodged a flying defender, drove to the basket, missed, got his own rebound, scored AND WAS FOULED.  Just your typical three-point play.  UK up 65-62.

Georgia came back and the ball to their big center, Nemanja Djurisic, who had given UK fits all night.  But before Djurisic could try his Euro-magic on WCS, the refs called a blocking foul on Aaron Harrison.  That sent Kenny Gaines to the stripe, and he missed.  Andrew Harrison with the rebound.  And now everyone surely knew that the ball was going back to Towns, and the Cats ran this lovely dispy-doo sort of play (I don't remember seeing it all year) where Ulis got the ball in the lane and then gave it back to Towns, who made another layup.  UK 67, UGA 62 with 2:07 left.

By this point, Georgia's legs were gone.  The Dawgs missed a three-pointer with 1:47 left, and then missed another one with 56 seconds left.  Most of the last minute consisted of UK making free throws.  Final score:  Kentucky 72, Georgia 64.  Ken Pomeroy had picked them to win by 9 -- and despite all their problems, they almost made it.

30-0.  17-0 in the SEC.  One game left.

For hours on the UK message board, the fans broke down the game.  What's wrong with our three-point shooting?  What's wrong with the pick-and-roll defense?  Aren't we lucky to have the Twins?  How great is Towns?  And, of course, over it all, the looming NCAA Tournament -- and the potential judgment of history.

But I'll say this -- I count every game, and I want to win them all.  This team played nine SEC teams on the road -- and they beat them all.  They've played 30 games so far, and they've won them all.  This game was probably their last one wearing blue uniforms, which means they have probably gone undefeated in blue.  Whatever else happens this year, those are extraordinary accomplishments, and they should not be forgotten.

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