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Keith Taylor: Georgia throws punch, UK fights back to oust Bulldogs from tourney, advance to finals

NASHVILLE — Georgia threw a punch at Kentucky. The Wildcats fought back and knocked the Bulldogs out of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 93-80 victory Saturday at Bridgestone Arena.

The Wildcats (25-8) advanced to the league finals and will defend their title against Texas A&M on Sunday. The Aggies (26-7) rolled to a 71-38 victory over LSU in the first of two semifinal games. Texas A&M defeated the Wildcats 79-77 in overtime on Feb. 20 at College Station.

Isaiah Briscoe scored 12 points in UK's win over Georgia Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

Isaiah Briscoe scored 12 points in UK’s win over Georgia Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky, which has won its past four games by double digits, including an 85-59 rout of Alabama in the conference tournament opener Friday night, used a strong performance in the second half to overcome a 49-44 halftime deficit and fend off the pesky Bulldogs.

“We both came out and fought,” Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis said. “They came out in the first half and they were really hot. It’s hard for a team to stay that hot all 40 minutes. We stepped it up defensively and fortunately, we came out with the win.”

It wasn’t easy.

Although the Wildcats defeated the Bulldogs handily 82-48 on Feb. 9, things were much-different in an environment that rivaled an NCAA Tournament game on a neutral court. Coming off an upset of No. 3 seed South Carolina in the quarterfinals less than 24 hours earlier, Georgia was building a case for a spot in the Big Dance, while Kentucky also was trying to improve its NCAA seeding.

“They won five straight games and had us beat most of the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of the Bulldogs. “We had what we needed at the end to kind of win the game. They’re an NCAA team.”

BOXSCORE: Kentucky 93, Georgia 80

The Wildcats trailed by 10 in the first half and didn’t fully take control until Ulis knocked down a 3-pointer, followed by an Isaiah Briscoe putback with eight minutes remaining that put Kentucky in command.

Briscoe played a big role in the Wildcats’ successful comeback attempt and finished with 12 points, including eight in the second half. For Briscoe it was his first double-figure outing in two games and perhaps his best all-around performance of the season. He made four-of-five free throws, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out two assists.

Calipari wasn’t happy with Briscoe’s performance in the first frame, but a coach-to-player gut check provided the spark Briscoe needed to come through for his team in the final 20 minutes.

“As a coach he demands the best out of you,” Briscoe said. “In the second half, he got the best out of me and I performed.”

Georgia shut down Kentucky’s post game in the first half, but Jamal Murray and Ulis kept the Wildcats afloat, combining for 31 of Kentucky’s 44 points in the opening frame.

“They went right after us inside,” Calipari said.

Despite the first-half struggles, Kentucky wore down Bulldogs in the second half and got more scoring from the post to take the pressure off of Ulis and Murray as five players finished in double figures. Murray paved the way with 26 points, followed by Ulis (25), Derek Willis (14), Briscoe (12) and Poythress (10).

Kentucky didn’t mind the closer-than-expected encounter and Willis said it will prove to be beneficial in the Big Dance.

“It’s going to help us tremendously,” Willis said. “This is just how the tournament is going to be. There is going to be days where you’re down 10, let’s see what you can do, and everything counts. I just think it’ll be a learning experience for us, it was a great learning experience for me. It just all around helps us.”

Calipari agreed.

“That was a great test,” the Kentucky coach said. “That was a war. We got down and we didn’t stop. We kept playing. They didn’t go away (and) we had to make big plays and (get) big rebounds down the stretch to even think about beating them.”

Even though it took a comeback to defeat the Bulldogs and keep the Wildcats alive in the tourney, that’s the way the games are played in March. They’re close, exciting and sometimes breathtaking.

Game tracker: Kentucky vs. Texas A&M, 1 p.m., Sunday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

 Kentucky players watch as Tyler Ulis drains a big three in the second half Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky players watch as Tyler Ulis drains a big three in the second half Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

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