ATLANTA (AP)—Take a deep breath, Kentucky.
Georgia is out of the way.
The eighth-ranked Wildcats eliminated their nemesis from the Southeastern Conference tournament, getting 23 points from Cliff Hawkins and using a late run to put away Georgia 69-60 Friday.
“There’s sense of relief beating these guys,” Kelenna Azubuike said.
No kidding. Kentucky (24-4) has its sights on a top seed in the NCAA tournament, but that would have been out of the question if the Wildcats couldn’t figure out Georgia (16-13).
They finally did after losing twice to the Bulldogs during the regular season. Georgia was in position to become just the second team in 84 years to sweep three games from Kentucky in a season.
With five minutes left, it looked possible. Georgia stormed back into the game with an 10-0 run and tied it at 52 on Rashad Wright’s 3-pointer. But the Bulldogs never got over the hump, and Kentucky put the game away with a 12-3 run that featured two key baskets by Azubuike.
“They have a very tough team,” he said. “They play defense just like we do. They’re pretty much a mirror-image of ourselves.”
Gerald Fitch put Kentucky ahead to stay by making two free throws with 3:17 remaining. After Wright missed, the Wildcats raced the other way and got a layup from Erik Daniels to push the lead to 56-52.
A long 3 by Wright turned out to be Georgia’s last hurrah. Hawkins responded with a 3 of his own over Wright—voted the top defender in the league—and Kentucky got a fortunate bounce after Fitch missed a 3-pointer. The rebound went straight to Azubuike, who laid it in, was fouled by Wright and finished off the three-point play with a free throw.
Then came the knockout, once again delivered by Azubuike. The sophomore saw an opening along the baseline and streaked to the basket for a monstrous dunk with one minute to go, putting Kentucky ahead 64-55.
“We were very serious-minded,” Fitch said. “Once we found out we were playing Georgia, we had our game face on.”
The Bulldogs might still have won if not for atrocious free-throw shooting. After making 71.5 percent during the regular season—fourth in the SEC—they were only 6-of-16 against Kentucky.
“Quite simply, if we make our free throws like we normally do, we win the game walking away,” Georgia coach Dennis Felton said.
Fitch scored 15 points and Azubuike added 11 for the Wildcats, who advanced to meet South Carolina in Saturday’s semifinals.
The loss likely prevented Georgia from a spot in the NCAA tournament, though Felton got in some last-minute campaigning for those who will pick the 65-team field.
“You would struggle to find 30 teams better than us,” he said. “We’re very, very hopeful.”
More than likely, however, the Bulldogs will be forced to settle for the National Invitation Tournament in their follow-up to last year’s academic scandal, which cost coach Jim Harrick his job and prompted the school to withdraw from both the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
Despite having only seven healthy players on scholarship, Georgia stunned Kentucky in both regular-season meetings, winning 65-57 at Rupp Arena and following up with a 74-68 upset in Athens.
Since 1920, Tennessee was the only team to sweep three games from Kentucky in a season, pulling off the feat in 1979. Conversely, Georgia had pulled off three wins over the same team only once, against Mississippi State in 1984.
While the game was played just over an hour’s drive from the Georgia campus, the Big Blue Nation turned Atlanta into “Cat-lanta.” The Bulldogs had one section of red-clad fans—everyone else in the Georgia Dome appeared to be wearing blue.
“We are used to that,” Fitch said. “Everywhere we go, the place is packed with Wildcat fans.”
Still, the Bulldogs made a game of it after Hawkins hit one of his four 3s, putting Kentucky up 49-38 with just under 12 minutes left.
Wright, who led Georgia with 23 points, started the comeback with a trey of his own. Overall, he was 5-of-8 from outside the arc.
Wright drove the lane for another hoop, Chris Daniels spun in the late for a basket and Levi Stukes swished his only 3 of the game from the top of the key, completing the 10-point run.
The previous day, Stukes tied an SEC tournament record with eight 3-pointers, accounting for nearly all of his career-high 25 points. He was only 1-of-6 against the Wildcats, who put Fitch in the freshman’s face and held him to three points.
“I didn’t want to give him open looks,” Fitch said, “especially after the game he had.”