Coach Tubby Smith sent a message to his struggling team by starting reserves Ravi Moss, Brandon Stockton, Bobby Perry, Lukasz Obrzut, along with senior Partrick Sparks. "We graded the highest in practice," Sparks said, "and we came out and showed a lot of energy and set the pace." The starters responded by holding their own, falling behind just 10-7 in the first five and a half minutes of the first half.
"We tried to go out and show we were ready to play," said Sparks, "it's a battle every time we play Georgia. They are very physical." Rajon Rondo, Joe Crawford, Sheray Thomas and Randolph Morris would enter the game and spearhead a 15-0 Wildcat run over the next six minutes and Kentucky would lead 22-10. During that span, the Wildcats played the kind of defense that has long been the benchmark of a Tubby Smith team.
Still, as they have all season long, the Wildcats could not sustain the outstanding play. Georgia would go on a 15-2 run of its own and take the lead back from the Cats at 25-24 on a Levi Stukes lay up with just 1:38 to play in the first half.
"We had them, but we let them sneak back into the game," Sparks said. "We need to build the lead and then continue to attack, attack. We have been letting up a bit when we go up."
Randolph Morris would make two buckets as time wound down and the Cats took a slim 28-25 lead into the locker room at the half.
For the first three and a half minutes of the second half, the Bulldogs hung in there with the Cats, despite poor shooting, and trailed just 33-31 at the 16:23 mark. From there the Cats would build double digit leads and appeared poised to pull away. When Patrick Sparks hit a three point shot with 6:39 left in the game, the Cats went ahead 65-53.
But this Kentucky team has not closed out teams easily this season and tonight was no different. The Bulldogs played some tough defense of their own and the Wildcats would handle the ball loosely. Georgia whittled into the lead and went on a 5-0 run to draw the Bulldogs to within five at 57-52 with just over 2:00 remaining in the game.
The Cats would hang on, however, for the 7-point win. Patrick Sparks added 11 points for Kentucky, who next travel to South Carolina (14-10, 5-6 SEC) for a rematch of the tight contest in Rupp Arena earlier this year.
"We know they played well here in Rupp," Sparks said. "It's time for us to go down there and play well. If we play defense like I know we are capable of playing, I think we will be fine." The Wildcats shot 50% from the field and played some of their best defense of the season, holding the Bulldogs to just 35% shooting. Kentucky gave up just 61 points tonight. In their three previous games, all losses, the Cats' opponents averaged a whopping 85 points per game.