By LARRY VAUGHT
ST. LOUIS — No Jarred Vanderbilt, no problem.
Kentucky overcame a so-so start with suffocating defense at times to beat Georgia 62-49 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals. The Cats did it even though their best rebounder, freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, missed the game with a leg/ankle injury suffered in practice Tuesday.
Kentucky will face Alabama, an 81-63 winner over Auburn in Friday’s first game, in Saturday’s semifinals. Alabama opened the second half with a 20-2 scoring run when Auburn went 0-for-13 from the field to build a 59-44 lead and never looked back.
“We’re out here with guys figuring it out. At the end of the game was probably the only time I got upset because we’re trying to use clock and we’re shooting it quick,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “ I’m not looking at this game when you’re up 12. I’m looking at a game when you’re up 5, and you want to shorten the game a little bit on somebody and make a dagger play.
“We don’t know that stuff yet. We’re trying to work our way through it. We need a game, and we probably need a couple games based on the fact of seeing how these guys are playing together.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the catalyst for Kentucky again with 15 points, nine assists, four rebounds and two steals in 37 minutes.
“I think it was my teammates did a really good job of spacing the floor when I was coming off of pick-and-rolls, and Coach has been drilling that lately, giving it up early off of pick-and-rolls and stuff like that. I just tried to do that today, get guys involved early, and it played well today,” Gilgeous-Alexander said about his nine assists.
P.J. Washington had a game-high 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting and seven rebounds in 35 minutes. Kevin Knox was only 6-for-18 from the field but also had nine rebounds and two steals in 37 minutes.
But the most impressive part of the game was UK’s overall energy, especially on defense. Georgia was 6-for-23 from 3-point range and 15 of 53 (28.3 percent) overall. The Bulldogs also had 11 turnovers after making only 12 total in their two previous games.
“It was their third game in three days. Our whole thing was let’s get into their legs. Let’s pressure them. Let’s do things to get into their legs. That was probably the biggest reason,” Calipari said.
“I just didn’t feel like we could ever get in a rhythm offensively today, and we didn’t finish enough plays to give ourselves a rhythm offensively,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I did think that we defended pretty well. We held them to 62.
“But we just couldn’t offensively find the same rhythm that we had the first couple days of the tournament, and a lot of that should be credited to Kentucky’s defense because John’s done a terrific job with his team.”
Give Calipari credit for having his team focused and putting together a terrific game plan against a team that was desperate to win for two reasons — to keep alive its hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament and to potentially save coach Mark Fox’s job.
However, Georgia was playing its third game in three days and just could not find a way to solve UK’s defense that often double or triple teamed center Yante Maten. He had nine points — but only two field goals — and four rebounds.
“We just tried to come out and focus on our game plan. We were trying to trap them down low, and I felt like we did a great job of that in both halves,” Washington said. “We limited him to some minor baskets, I think free throws and stuff like that. We just fouled him on some open 3’s too. So he got lucky on those. We slipped up a little bit on the defensive end, but we played great.”
“We just didn’t play with a lot of authority in the low post today. Part of that is certainly because of Kentucky’s defense,” Fox said.
Knox appreciated the way Kentucky fans came to St. Louis to support the Cats. It was his first time to experience the Big Blue Mist that consumes the SEC Tournament annually.
“It was great to see how many fans came out. I think there was more blue than any other team in the whole tournament,” Knox said. “That just shows how committed our fans are. We’ve got the best fans in the world. They travel pretty much anywhere else in the world to watch us play.
“It’s good to know you’ve got your fans in there when you play any game, and they’re there to support you.”
* * *
Calipari does not expect Vanderbilt to play Saturday against Alabama.
“Jarred, what I saw today, will not play tomorrow. He’s still limping. I told him, as soon as you can jump up and grab the rim with two hands, come on over and talk to me. But here’s a kid that, Coach, I can play through this pain. I can do this,” Calipari said. “Look, at this time of year for everyone here, you can’t play with anybody that’s at 80 percent. You can’t. You can’t because the games are at too high level and you just play too hard.”
Freshman guard Quade Green said no Vanderbilt made one obvious change to the team.
“It made us all fight harder for him,” Green said.