Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, leading Georgia to a 72-62 victory Thursday night that sent the Wildcats into the regular-season finale against No. 11 Florida in desperate need of a quality win to bolster their resume.
“I am so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team,” Calipari said. “I’ve never had a team not cohesive at this time of year. Every one of my teams was cohesive. Every one of them had a will to win more than how they were playing. Every one of them had a fight. Well, if this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me. What in the heck did I do?”
How bad did things get for the defending national champions?
Georgia was able to clear its bench in the closing seconds, giving everyone a chance to play in its final home game. Kentucky, on the other hand, barely had enough guys to finish. Three players fouled out.
“I’m mad right now,” said Archie Goodwin, who led Kentucky with 20 points. “There’s no way we should lose to Georgia.”
The Wildcats (20-10, 11-6 Southeastern Conference) looked to be gearing up for a March run when they won three straight home games at the end of last month. But they resumed their inconsistent ways on the road, following up a 73-60 loss at Arkansas with another double-digit defeat in Athens.
With six losses by at least 10 points and no big-time wins on its record, Kentucky is facing the very real possibility of missing the NCAAs just one year after cutting down the nets in the final game of the season.
Georgia could see the desperation in the opponent’s eyes at the beginning of the game.
“They came out with some fire,” center John Florveus said. “You could tell in everything they were doing that it was a really big game for them.”
After Georgia (15-15, 9-8) pushed out to a 50-40 lead with just over 9 minutes remaining, Kentucky ripped off a quick 7-0 spurt capped by Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointer. That turned out to be the Wildcats’ last hurrah.
Nemanja Djurisic got inside for a run-stopping basket, Caldwell-Pope knocked down four straight free throws, and another Kentucky miss sparked a Georgia fast break that was capped by Caldwell-Pope’s rim-hanging dunk.
Just like that, the biggest crowd of the season — a near-sellout of 10,002 — was roaring and the Bulldogs had restored a 58-47 lead. Georgia pushed the margin as high as 15, and Kentucky never got any closer than nine the rest of the way.
Even so, Georgia coach Mark Fox figures the Wildcats are still a lock for the 68-team NCAA tournament field.
“Kentucky belongs in the tournament,” he said. “Are you kidding me? They have 20 wins already.”
It was a miserable shooting night for the Wildcats, who made only 23-of-62 from the field (37.1 percent), 6-of-26 from 3-point range and just 10-of-18 on free throws.
Caldwell-Pope provided the perfect capper for Georgia, slicing off the wing for another thunderous dunk with a minute to go, finishing off any hopes of a Kentucky comeback. The sophomore posted his fifth double-double of the season.
“We’ve begun to grow up and show signs of maturity,” Fox said. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made.”
Goodwin, Alex Poythress and former Walton High School star Ryan Harrow fouled out for Kentucky. The Wildcats, on the other hand, didn’t even get into the second-half bonus until just 7 seconds remained, long after it mattered.
The Bulldogs set an early tone when Goodwin had his driving shot swatted away by Donte Williams, sparking a Georgia fast break that ended with Sherrard Brantley laying it in at the other end.
Georgia raced off the court at halftime with even more momentum, knocking down a couple of 3s in the closing seconds.
After Brantley swished one from beyond the arc, Kentucky ran the clock down and appeared to deliver the final salvo when Wiltjer got inside for a lay-in with 6 seconds left. But the Bulldogs raced down the court and Caldwell-Pope got off a long trey that rattled around the rim, dropping in as the horn sounded for a 31-26 edge.
Willie Cauley-Stein had 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Wildcats. Wiltjer added 12 points, Harrow 11.
Djurisic scored 12 points for Georgia and Williams chipped in with 10.
The Bulldogs actually shot worse than Kentucky, making a mere 19 of 52 from the field. But they dominated at the foul line, a spot that has given them trouble this season, knocking down 27 of 34.
“I called Mark Fox several weeks ago and told him what a great job he was doing with his team,” Calipari said. “His star is being his star, and every other kid is doing what he is supposed to do. They’re defending, they’re playing tough with low turnovers, and it’s just good stuff.”
Now, if Calipari could only figure out how to get that from his own team.