Dawgs Ready to Fight Cats

ATHENS – The last time Kentucky came to Athens might not have been the loudest Stegeman Coliseum got last year, but it was definitely close.

The problem was, the fans weren't cheering a Georgia win.

It's something Albert Jackson will be thinking about as he steps onto his home court for the final time in his career, again taking on the Wildcats. The Bulldogs had been thoroughly beaten by Kentucky, schooled by Georgia native Jodie Meeks, and the crowd was decked out in blue.

"Last year, we had as many Kentucky fans as we had Georgia fans here," Jackson said of last season's 68-45 Wildcats win. "I remember at the end of the game, as we were walking off the court, you could hear Kentucky chants. You should never be able to hear the other team chanting in your gym. That should never happen."

And yet, when Jackson thinks back to that now, it's no longer a bad memory. It's a reminder of how far his team has come and a barometer of the success the Bulldogs have enjoyed during Jackson's final year in Athens.

When head coach Mark Fox arrived with a plan to rebuild a floundering program, little was promised to the seniors. It was a long-term plan, and chances were, the team's veterans wouldn't be around to see the culmination of Fox's efforts.

From Day 1, however, that was OK with Jackson, and the reward of stepping onto the court tonight in front of a sellout crowd of Georgia fans, decked out in red and black and anxious to drown out any chants and cheers for the high-profile opponents, that's reward enough.

"It's good to get recognized by the fans for all your hard work, for being here four years, for making it through all the ups and downs and highs and lows," Jackson said. "It's going to be a bittersweet feeling, but at the same time, I couldn't ask for a better senior night with a new coach, a great team, great fans and I'm playing Kentucky."

Georgia (13-14, 5-9 SEC) has already surpassed last year's win total for the year and matched the number of regular-season victories from the 2007-08 season. A win over Kentucky would give the Bulldogs a victory over all five of their SEC East rivals this season and would give them a shot at finishing the regular season with a winning record for the first time in three years.

All of those are welcome rewards, but even Fox knows that Jackson, senior guard Ricky McPhee, who transferred from Gardner-Webb three years ago as a walk-on, and senior forward Tyler Whatley are getting the short end of the stick. The won't see any Final Fours or even an NCAA Tournament berth, but what they've given to the program in their final season has been essential.

"When you rebuild a program, there's often a group that lays a foundation that those that follow get to reap the benefits from," Fox said. "Those kids have a special place in every coach's heart, and this group of seniors who I inherited, they have been terrific in buying into our direction and they really have made this year easy for me because they have been on board 100 percent from Day 1."

And for Georgia's three seniors, that's enough.

They'll each start tonight's game, and while the Bulldogs will have their work cut out for them against the SEC leading Wildcats, there's also a chance the seniors will go out winners.

After all they've been through, that's an accomplishment in and of itself.

"To be honest, I wouldn't have thought in a million years that I'd be playing the No. 3 team in the nation and starting for the Bulldogs," McPhee said. ‘I'm truly blessed. I'm so excited and ready to get out there and compete and cherish every moment of it."

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