Cats too much

ATLANTA -- Georgia will now have to wait two days to see if almost beating Kentucky three times is enough to propel it into the NCAA Tournament.

The Bulldogs were within minutes Friday of becoming just the second team since 1920 to beat the Wildcats three times in a season, but a late rally gave No. 8 Kentucky a 69-60 win and a date with South Carolina in the SEC Tournament semifinals in the Georgia Dome.

Where Georgia plays next is in the hands of the NCAA Selection Committee, which must decide if its two wins over Kentucky in the regular season and wins over Florida, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt are enough to outweigh the Bulldogs' modest 16-13 overall record.

"We will head into Sunday plenty hopeful," Coach Dennis Felton said. "I think we have a powerful resume to ponder. Nobody has more very, very high level wins than us except some of the special teams."

The Bulldogs have a projected RPI in the high 40s or low 50s, and their strong strength of schedule (estimated the 16th toughest in the country prior to the SEC Tournament) will help their case when the final decisions are made Sunday afternoon. Georgia also won five of its final eight, which could carry some weight with committee members.

"The reality of it is, I believe our team at this point certainly can represent itself and compete very well in the national tournament," Felton said. "I think you would struggle to find 30 teams better than us without any question."

Several hundred Kentucky fans voiced their opinion as time expired, chanting "NIT, NIT."

If Georgia does have to settle for the National Invitation Tournament, Felton said he will be "very, very excited about the chance to compete for that national title."

Georgia's players didn't say much after the game about what lies ahead. They were still dealing with letting a crucial win slip from their grasp.

The Bulldogs trailed 56-55 with two minutes left but gave up a Cliff Hawkins' 3-pointer and a breakaway basket by Kelenna Azubuike within 25 seconds of each other that gave the Wildcats a 62-55 lead with 1:23 remaining.

"I haven't thought much about what the future holds for us," senior Damien Wilkins said. "This is really a tough loss to swallow right now. We understood this was a big game for us. We certainly needed to win, and we wanted to win. But we couldn't get it done."

Georgia, the fourth-best free throw shooting team in the SEC (71.2 percent), also missed 10 of 16 free throws.

"If we would have made our free throws at the level we usually do, we would have won the game walking away," Felton said. "That's about as simple as it gets. Our players are going to struggle with that part of it, the outcome hinging on something that simple."

Senior forward Jonas Hayes missed two free throws that would have broken a 52-52 tie with 4:41 remaining. The Bulldogs trailed by as many as 12 points in the second half.

"Free throws, my free throws, killed us," Hayes said.

The victory kept Kentucky (24-4) in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As importantly to the ‘Cats, it avenged Georgia's season sweep. Hawkins led Kentucky with 23 points and was matched by counterpart Rashad Wright, who had 23 points and five assists.

"It was a war from start to finish," said Kentucky shooting guard Gerald Fitch, a graduate of Macon's Westside High School.

Felton said he had never seen any team play with more intensity than Kentucky, which had nine steals.

"The game played out exactly as I thought it would," he said, "two tremendous teams going at it. I figured it was going to be a very hard fought win for somebody with plenty of drama, which it turned out to be. Obviously, we're disappointed to come a play or two short."

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