By LARRY VAUGHT
ST. LOUIS — Before the SEC Tournament started, John Calipari said it wouldn’t stun him to see “Georgia march” through the tournament even thought the Bulldogs had to play on Wednesday night.
Georgia not only beat Vanderbilt Wednesday, but it overcame a 10-0 deficit to start Thursday’s game with Missouri and won 62-60 to advance to Friday afternoon’s quarterfinal matchup with Kentucky — which will be without freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt because of a foot injury.
Calipari was somewhat subdued Thursday night when he revealed the news about Vanderbilt’s absence. But he also re-emphasized that he warned before the tournament even started not to underestimate Georgia.
“They were the team that was playing the best at the end of the year. They lost at home to Texas A&M in the last minute. They lost to Tennessee in the last minute. They should have won both games. They had good leads in both games. Then you saw what they did to Vanderbilt and now you see what they did to Missouri,” Calipari said. “And Missouri, they told me, had the building (in total fans). So it was basically a road game.
“I hit (Georgia coach) Mark (Fox) and just told him – I said, ‘You are coaching your brains out.’ Which I have great respect for him.”
Georgia lost 66-61 at UK on Dec. 31 to open SEC play. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went 12-for-13 from the foul line and had 21 points for UK while Quade Green had 15 points and was 6-for-8 from the foul line. However, Georgia outscored UK 34-22 in the paint. Yante Maten had 17 points and 12 rebounds for Georgia.
“The game we played against them at our place when I watched the tape, we should have got beat. I mean, they had us beat,” Calipari said. “It’ll be a hard game.
“I mean, these are all hard games. We’re going in with guys that are anxious and never have played in a tournament. ‘What does this mean? Is it going to be different?’ Let’s just worry about us and playing better. I like the frame of mind my kids are in, but you just don’t know when they’re this young and inexperienced.”
Calipari said the Bulldogs take care of the basketball — they only had eight turnovers against Missouri — and make shots even though they shot just 38 percent from the field against Missouri.
“They’ve got some shooters on the perimeter that, as you try to guard all of that stuff around that basket, these kids can make shots. Their freshman point guard (Teshaun Hightower) has played a great tournament in their two games right now. (He) hadn’t been playing as much and then the last two games they’re playing him a lot. And you know what? They’re putting him in a high pick-and-roll kind of like they used to do with JJ (Frazier),” Calipari said.
“So now all of a sudden here’s this kid coming and shooting bombs and then getting to the rim and shooting layups. And he’s a young kid. He’s a freshman. He’s good.”
Hightower had 13 points, seven rebounds and two assists Thursday. He hit two 3-point shots.
Fox didn’t know about Vanderbilt’s likely absence when he talked about Friday’s quarterfinal game that the Bulldogs know they must win to keep alive their NCAA Tournament hopes — and also possibly save Fox’s job.
“A couple years ago, we tried to play really fast, went to the platoon system and tried to just play super fast and get easy shots because their defense is so good. I’m not sure what we’ll do. We’ve got more depth this year,” Fox said.
What about playing three straight days?
“I think our team should hopefully recover today. Yesterday wasn’t a very physical game at all. I thought we were very fresh today. I don’t think today was something that will drain us too much. We came into the tournament very fresh. But getting stops will be important whether we play fast or slow,” Fox said.
Georgia never wavered even when it got down 10-0.
“I’ll tell you what, here’s what I told my team. In life and in basketball, when the going gets tough, some people run for the hills, and other people try and climb them. And they were down 10-0, and they decided to try to climb back in it, and that’s what they did,” Fox said.