LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky coach John Calipari knows his team can take a punch. Now he knows it can deliver one, too.
Doron Lamb scored 19 points, including a couple of crucial baskets to halt a late Georgia rally, and the 14th-ranked Wildcats avenged a loss to the Bulldogs three weeks ago with a 66-60 victory on Saturday.
Playing with the kind of aggressiveness they lacked when Georgia “mushed” — as Calipari put it—them on Jan. 8, the Wildcats (16-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) did the bullying when it mattered to stay hot on Florida’s heels in the crowded SEC East.
“Coach is always talking about being tougher, being more active on the court,” Lamb said. “We did a great job today, but coach wants us to do way better.”
Not that Calipari was complaining after watching his team harass Georgia star Trey Thompkins into a miserable day. Thompkins lit the Wildcats up for 25 points in the first meeting but finished with just nine points on 2 of 10 shooting in the rematch.
“(We) were really zoned in on how we had to play to make it tough for (Georgia),” Calipari said. “They beat our brains down there. We were physical until the second half.”
By then Kentucky led by 15 points and even a bout with lethargy late in the second half didn’t stop the Wildcats from extending their winning streak at Rupp Arena to 29 straight—the second-longest active streak in the country.
Dustin Ware led Georgia (14-6, 3-4) with 18 points, but the Bulldogs shot a season-low 37 percent (21 of 57) to lose for the third time in four games. Coming off an emotional double-overtime loss to Florida on Tuesday, coach Mark Fox worried about his players suffering a letdown.
It came early. The Wildcats never trailed and needed just over 5 minutes to build a 10-point lead that ballooned to 15 at the half.
“Kentucky came out of the gates so strong we just had to play catch up the whole night,” Fox said. “We just couldn’t finish enough plays to get back in it.”
Calipari said he hoped the Wildcats had spent the three weeks since Georgia’s dominating victory developing the kind of toughness needed to compete for a conference title.
The Bulldogs pushed the Wildcats earlier this month doing whatever they wanted in the lane and playing the kind of physical defense that left Kentucky rattled.
Calipari brought in longtime friend and mentor Larry Brown this week to give him someone to bounce ideas off of and to lend his players advice. The Hall of Fame coach told the Wildcats to not wait for the Bulldogs to come to them.
They didn’t. With Brown watching from the front row, Kentucky attacked relentlessly in the first half, particularly junior forward Darius Miller, who raised Calipari’s ire for being too timid when he got in the lane in the earlier loss. Miller finished with 14 points and went to the free throw line seven times.
At one point, teammate Josh Harrellson practically tackled Miller in celebration following one foray into the lane when Miller was fouled trying to dunk.
“That’s the reason we lost to them down there, not playing tough enough going to the rim,” Miller said. “We all just made a conscious effort to finish today, to play through the bumps.”
They did until the end. Though Georgia never got closer than six points in the second half, Kentucky had trouble putting the Bulldogs away. The Wildcats struggled to make free throws (16 of 25) and let Georgia’s pressure force a couple of ill-timed turnovers late.
Still, the Wildcats had enough to remain undefeated at Rupp Arena under Calipari, thanks in part to the steady play of Lamb. He made 7 of 11 field goals, including consecutive buckets midway through the second half that gave Kentucky a 57-45 lead and blunted Georgia’s momentum just enough.
The Wildcats cleared out for Lamb on both baskets and he had little trouble getting free for a 15-footer from the right corner and a nifty little 10-footer in the lane.
“It was my play, I just wanted to be there, be aggressive,” Lamb said.
Ware did his best to keep Georgia in it but received little help. Gerald Robinson added 12 points, but Travis Leslie missed all seven of his shots from the field and finished with five points.
Though Kentucky did a much better job of guarding Thompkins than it did earlier in the month, he still had opportunities to make things interesting late. Yet he missed four straight shots in the closing minutes when the Wildcats appeared to be teetering.
“My teammates need me to score and when I’m not making shots it hurts our team and I understand that,” Thompkins said.
Fox refused to place blame at the feet of his two stars.
“Those two kids have made so many plays for us and been very consistent, and I think the combined for 2-17 tonight,” Fox said. “You have to credit Kentucky’s defense first. But they’ve been so good they deserve to try and play through a tough night. We just couldn’t get either one of them going.”
Kentucky has won four out of five to pull within a half-game of SEC East-leading Florida. Not bad for a team Calipari says still has a ways to go.
“We can be pretty good and you saw it today,” he said. “And then, all the stuff that we need to get better at, I’ve got on tape. I can show them. And we still won.”