Kentucky head coach John Calipari says his team may have turned a corner on Friday in its SEC Tournament opener.
The No. 8 Wildcats shot only 38 percent and got just two points from SEC Player of the Year Malik Monk but rode one of their best defensive performances of the season to a surprisingly comfortable 71-60 victory over Georgia at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
"Malik, was he even at the game?" Calipari quipped. "... For us to win the way Malik played and to do it on the defensive end means we're maturing."
Kentucky (27-5) held the Bulldogs to 33 percent from the field, including a combined 7-for-28 shooting day for UGA stars J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten. The Cats also scored 18 points off 13 UGA turnovers.
"We just came out with a lot of energy," said UK sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, who had 20 points, six rebounds and two steals. "We were playing together, talking."
Freshman guard De'Aaron Fox matched Briscoe with 20 points to help overcome the off day by Monk. Bam Adebayo added 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Derek Willis chipped in with seven points, 11 rebounds, and four blocked shots.
Kentucky led by as many as 18 points and was never threatened in the second half. Georgia (19-14) trailed by double digits for the final 19-plus minutes.
Frazier and Maten finished with 15 and 12 points, respectively, for the Bulldogs. They had combined for 45 in UGA's overtime loss at Rupp Arena in January. Frazier pumped in 36 in the February rematch in Athens.
"You have to credit Kentucky's defense," UGA head coach Mark Fox said. "They've got a terrific team and their defense was outstanding on us."
"Earlier in the game, they loaded up on the ball screens and loaded up when I had the ball. So it made it a lot difficult," Frazier said. "When I got the clean looks, I just didn't knock them down. You got to give their defense a lot of credit."
In this AllWildcats "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some quick-hitters from the game...
WHAT WE LIKED:
The prospects of winning a game against a solid club like Georgia with Malik Monk scoring only two points would have been unthinkable earlier this season. Kentucky appears to be buying into what its coach has preached for weeks: the Cats' championship hopes rest on whether or not they defend. The UK defense has been trending in the right direction late in the season, but Friday's performance was arguably its best. J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten have carved them up consistently during their time at UGA, but the duo had virtually no good looks at the basket.
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky -- The Cats' leader had the look of a guy who is ready for postseason play and has his full focus on making a championship run rather than his draft prospects, which may have led to some of his mid-season struggles. Briscoe was the catalyst for UK's defensive intensity, and it carried over to the offensive end of the floor. It culminated in his first 20-point performance since Jan. 31 against Georgia. "I'm really pleased with Isaiah. He led the team," UK head coach John Calipari said.
BY THE NUMBERS:
0 - Fast-break points for UGA.
2 - Consecutive single-digit games for UK's Malik Monk after scoring double figures in every other game this season.
9 - Game winning streak for the Cats.
11-1 - UK's all-time record vs. UGA in the SEC Tournament.
18-2 - Points off turnovers advantage for the Cats.
144-5 - UK's record under Calipari when holding the opponent to under 63 points.
"This team has learned how to play down 15. They've learned how to play and grind it out up 15," -- UK head coach John Calipari.
Kentucky returns to action at 1 p.m. ET Saturday in the semifinals against Alabama, who beat South Carolina 64-53 in Friday's second quarterfinal game. Vanderbilt defeated Florida 72-62 in overtime, and Arkansas downed Ole Miss 73-72 in the late games.