Calipari gets Kentucky to focus on winning SEC
ATHENS, Ga. — John Calipari waited until Wednesday morning’s shootaround to remind his Kentucky players they were playing for more than a national championship.
Sensing they needed a lift, Calipari said he told his players, “Stop. Do you understand what we’re playing for today?”
The answer was the Southeastern Conference championship. After the coach’s reminder, No. 3 Kentucky clinched at least a share of the regular-season title by beating Georgia 80-68 on Wednesday night.
Calipari said the Wildcats were “sharp” and “focused” on the immediate goal.
John Wall had 24 points and Patrick Patterson added 17 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats, who scored the first 12 points of the second half and maintained control from there.
Kentucky (28-2, 13-2 SEC) bounced back from a loss at then-No. 19 Tennessee and moved one game ahead of Vanderbilt in the race for the league’s best record. The Wildcats, who swept Vanderbilt, already own the tiebreaker and the top seed in the SEC tournament.
Before the shooting practice, all of Kentucky’s focus had been on winning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Calipari said there had been no mention of the conference race.
“We never talked about it before the morning shootaround,” said Calipari, who joined Tubby Smith and Eddie Sutton as the only Kentucky coaches to win SEC titles in their first seasons.
Kentucky, which won a share of its 44th SEC title, snapped a streak of four straight home wins for Georgia (13-15, 5-10).
Wall hit three 3-pointers to help the Wildcats shake their recent shooting slump. The star freshman added six assists and three steals.
Calipari said he was happy with his team’s second-half defense but still worried about its lack of consistency.
“We have so much growing up to do and it’s worrying me a little bit,” Calipari said. “We’re going to go into this big tournament and, I don’t know, it’s just a little worrisome right now.”
The Wildcats led 40-36 at halftime before turning up their defensive pressure in the opening minutes of the second half. Georgia, which had six turnovers in the first half, added six turnovers in the first three minutes of the second half.
Kentucky had eight steals and a season-high 14 blocks, including a career-high six by freshman DeMarcus Cousins.
“We know that our defense is going to take us to the next level,” Patterson said. “It’s going to take us to the championship, if we get there. We know we are a defensive team. That comes first and defense wins championships. Tonight in the second half we started playing like a defensive team.”
Kentucky scored 24 points off Georgia’s 15 turnovers. The defense also set up some easy fast-break baskets as the Wildcats shot 54.4 percent from the field, their high mark in the SEC this season.
“Kentucky’s talent gets all the attention,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “It takes away from the fact that they are the No. 1 defensive team in the league and the No. 1 rebounding team in the league. They will win plenty of games because they have good players, but they will win even more because they are a very good defensive basketball team.”
Wall opened the second half with a 3-pointer and added a three-point play in the 12-0 run. Eric Bledsoe’s steal and two free throws capped the spurt for a 52-36 lead.
Jeremy Price led Georgia with 19 points. Ricky McPhee had 12 points, including three 3-pointers to lead a comeback attempt midway through the second half. McPhee’s 3 with 5:16 remaining cut the Kentucky lead to 72-63. Patterson scored to push the Wildcats’ edge back to double figures.
Georgia’s Trey Thompkins, who was called for his fourth foul with 11:03 remaining, had 12 points. Travis Leslie had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Kentucky made only two of 22 3-point attempts in Saturday’s 74-65 loss at Tennessee. A recent trend of poor shooting from the perimeter dropped the Wildcats’ to 11th in the league in 3-point shooting at 29.1 percent.
The Wildcats showed from the start they would not be shy about shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Darius Miller missed a 3 on Kentucky’s first possession, but Wall made two 3s in the first 6 minutes. Darnell Dodson, who had 11 points, hit back-to-back 3s later in the opening half.
Georgia took a 23-17 lead midway through the first half.