ST. LOUIS (AP) — John Calipari never had any doubt Kentucky fans would make their annual pilgrimage to this year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament, even if it was west of the Mississippi River in St. Louis’ Scottrade Center.
Big Blue Nation was on hand, and in full force, as the Wildcats made their tournament debut with a 62-49 win over Georgia in the quarterfinals on Friday.
PJ Washington scored 18 points to lead Kentucky, which entered as the No. 4 seed — the first time the school hasn’t been a top-two seed since Calipari was hired in 2009. Even the up-and-down regular season, however, couldn’t keep away a Wildcats fan base that has celebrated 30 SEC Tournament titles in its history, including the last three straight.
Of the 16,364 in attendance for the afternoon tipoff, the sea of blue left little doubt about whether Kentucky’s usual crop of heralded freshmen would feel right at home against the surprising No. 12 seed Bulldogs (18-15).
“I think there was more blue than any other team in the whole tournament,” Wildcats freshman Kevin Knox said. “… 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.”
Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 15 points in the win, which was Kentucky’s fifth in its last six games following a four-game losing streak.
Georgia was playing its third game in as many days after advancing in the tournament with earlier victories over <a target=”—blank” href=”https://collegebasketball.ap.org/article/maten-scores-25-lead-georgia-past-vandy-sec-tourney”>Vanderbilt</a> and <a target=”—blank” href=”https://collegebasketball.ap.org/article/georgia-spoils-porter-jrs-return-beats-missouri-62-60″>Missouri</a> . The emotionally charged Bulldogs took a 23-22 lead late in the first half after a pair of free throws by Associated Press SEC player of the year Yante Maten, but the edge was short-lived.
The Wildcats responded with an 8-0 run to take a 30-23 halftime lead and surged ahead by as many as 17 points in the second half.
Tyree Crump led Georgia with 17 points, while Maten was held to nine points on 2 of 10 shooting. The Bulldogs’ 49 points were the lowest Kentucky has limited any opponent to this season.
“It was their third game in three days,” Calipari said. “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.”
The 6-foot-7 Washington finished 8 of 12 from the field for Kentucky, the sixth straight game the freshman has shot 50 percent or higher. Washington has followed a stretch of five games in a row of scoring in single digits by scoring 10 or more in seven straight, and he’s connected on 35 of 52 shots (67.3 percent) during that run.
Georgia: The Bulldogs saw their NCAA RPI rating climb from 81st to 72nd thanks to victories over Vanderbilt and Missouri during the tournament’s first two days. However, they still likely needed to win the tournament to have a realistic chance of reaching coach Mark Fox’s third NCAA Tournament in nine seasons at the school — leading to questions about Fox’s future. “We felt like we could come in the tournament and win it, and we knew that the fatigue eventually would be something we’d have to overcome,” Fox said. “And we’ve been 100 percent focused on that and solely that.”
Kentucky: The Wildcats played without forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who injured an ankle during practice earlier this week. The 6-foot-9 freshman has led Kentucky in rebounding with 7.9 boards per game since returning from a foot injury that kept him out for the first 17 games of the season. He’s done so in only an average of 17 minutes per game, and Calipari said afterward he doesn’t expect Vanderbilt to play in Saturday’s semifinal.
Georgia waits to learn its postseason fate.
The Wildcats face ninth-seeded Alabama on Saturday.
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