In the past decade, the Georgia Bulldogs (10-4, 0-1) have been either been tied or had the lead going into halftime against the Kentucky Wildcats a total of 6 times. The Dawgs have won only three times on those such occasions. Anyone who felt confident heading into the intermission with the Dawgs up 37-31 has not been paying attention to this particular matchup.
To be fair, Georgia was on a gravy train with biscuit wheels for the final 5 minutes of the first half. UGA capped off an 11-2 run with a monster baseline dunk by Anthony Edwards, who finished off the play by showing some love to Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young, who was sitting courtside near the aforementioned play.
On the ensuing possession, Ashton Hagans snuck down and hit a three-pointer that cut the Georgia advantage to just 6 points as time expired on the initial 20 minutes. Heading into the locker room, Tom Crean’s team was all smiles and in a celebratory mood. My emotional state was more tepid.
What happened? How did the Dawgs fall flat and end up on the losing end of a 78-69 game?
First, the defense
The Dawgs played, in my opinion, their best half of defense of the season against Kentucky before the break. Tom Crean’s team had never looked so sound. Whether they were in matchup zone or a man defense that switched on screens, the Dawgs did an excellent job of staying in front of the Cats and limiting their trips to the foul line. Kentucky, a team that averages almost 23 free throw attempts a game, had shot just 3 after 20 minutes of play. This number is even more impressive considering that Calipari had his team attacking the paint relentlessly in an attempt to exploit the smaller Georgia lineup.
Not only didUGA defend on ball well, but he Dawgs were incredible at finishing plays on defense prior to the intermission. Georgia, due to its lack of size, has not been solid at closing out possessions on defense. UGA’s defensive rebounding percentage is just 70.4%, which is 12th in the SEC.
However, the Dawgs held the Wildcats to just 3 offensive rebounds in the first half; Georgia’s defensive rebounding percentage for this span of play was a robust 85.7%. Anthony Edwards and Jordan Harris had four defensive boards apiece, and Donnell Gresham notched 3. Despite the size differential, Georgia’s guards were more than willing to get into the paint and get their hands dirty against a taller Kentucky squad.
After the half, though, all of that good stuff that I just mentioned evaporated into thin air. The Georgia guards stopped guarding the ball-handler on the perimeter with the same tenacity, and Kentucky began to enjoy far too many of their coined “dribble-drives”. Toumani Camara, who ran the length of the court like a man possessed for the first 20 minutes, ran out of gas. The benefactor of Camara’s inability to defend in transition was Nick Richards, who ended up with 17 points despite playing just 7 minutes in the first half. The Cats scored an astounding 48 points in the paint by the time the final horn sounded (or nearly 62% of their offense).
The Dawgs also saw their defensive rebounding effort drop as Kentucky secured 9 offensive boards over the final 20 minutes; UGA’s second half defensive rebounding percentage was just 55%. All this aggressiveness on offense by Kentucky led to 17 more free throw attempts in the second half.
Georgia defended for the entire game last weekend at Memphis. That was not the case on Tuesday night in Athens.
Now the offense
Statistically speaking, UGA’s offensive numbers didn’t look that different from half one to half two. The Dawgs shot 43% from the floor during the first 20 minutes and 40% during the second; Georgia made 3 of 11 from beyond the arc during the first half and just 2 of 12 during the second. The Dawgs only scored 6 less points in the half two, but the problem was that Kentucky’s offense began to open up and Georgia ultimately couldn’t keep pace.
Anthony Edwards, who led all scorers with 23 points, hit 2 triples in NBA-like fashion before the first media timeout of the second half that helped stifle a Kentucky run to begin the half. His second three-pointer gave the Dawgs a 45-40 advantage with 16:42 left.
The Stegeman crowd fed off of Edwards’s flair. However, it seemed like the rest of his teammates became a little too entranced in watching the Ant Man go to work because that’s sort of what the UGA offense evolved into during the second half. Instead of moving and finding the soft spots in the Kentucky zone, Georgia’s offense turned into a one-man show that featured Edwards, and against a team as talented as the Cats, that’s not going to cut it.
Over the next 10 minutes, Georgia mustered only 12 points, and following a layup by Richards, the Dawgs trailed 62-57 with a little over 7 minutes remaining; Kentucky never really looked back.
One more look at the offense: three-point addition
One of the big shortcomings of former coach Mark Fox was his consistent lack of three-point threats. His rosters rarely featured more than 2 or 3 players that possessed that skillset from the perimeter.
Coach Crean’s offensive philosophy is vastly different from his predecessor as he really values the triple. The problem, though, is that his current team is not shooting the ball well at all from beyond the arc. After last evening’s 22% effort on three-pointers, Georgia is shooting just under 31% as a team on the season, which has them ranked 298th in that category.
Don’t get me wrong, I want the Dawgs to shoot threes. The triple is a critical part of college basketball offenses nowadays, and it is almost a must for any team that has NCAA Tournament aspirations. UGA has got to improve in this area of its offensive game, or SEC play could be a challenge.
Even though losing to Kentucky is starting to feel analogous to the football team’s struggles with Alabama, this was an entertaining game and Tom Crean’s team is FUN to watch. Last night’s tale of two halves was an experience that should pay dividends for this UGA squad moving forward. I’m positive that this bunch learned a valuable lesson about playing for the entire 40 minutes, especially against a team of Kentucky’s calibre.