LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A night in which No. 16 Kentucky seemingly couldn't make any shots didn't stop the Wildcats from trying, especially with the lead within reach against Georgia.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander changed everything with one timely 3-pointer that freed things up for everything to fall when they needed them.
The freshman guard had another big game off the bench with five of his 21 points coming down the stretch, and Kentucky added several clutch late baskets to rally past Georgia 66-61on Sunday night in its Southeastern Conference opener.
The Wildcats (11-2, 1-0) shot a season-low 17 of 54 from the field (32 percent) but made needed baskets to overcome an eight-point deficit early in the second half. Gilgeous-Alexander's go-ahead 3 with 4:39 remaining set the tone for big shots that Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and then Gilgeous-Alexander followed with layups before Wenyen Gabriel's 3 with 1:08 left provided a six-point cushion
Kentucky ended up making its final five attempts after missing its first six, a big improvement in a contest it had to play catch-up all night.
"That's one of our strengths, getting downhill and getting into the lane to put pressure on teams," said Gilgeous-Alexander, whose lone 3 offset 4-of-9 shooting. "So, shooting bad doesn't really affect us," It kind of makes us better."
Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green (15 points) combined for three late free throws to seal the tight win that followed Friday's 29-point shellacking of archrival Louisville. Diallo finished with 10 points and a team-high nine rebounds as Kentucky won the boards 42-38.
Kentucky coach John Calipari still called the first half one of the most selfish efforts displayed by his young team. Besides shooting 21 percent, freshmen forwards Nick Richards and PJ Washington each picked up two quick fouls and spent the rest of the half watching from the bench.
Kentucky coach John Calipari discusses his team’s close win over Georgia: pic.twitter.com/PEh0yrfpC1
— Gary Graves (@GaryBGraves) January 1, 2018
The Wildcats steadily fought back but couldn't get over the hump until Gilgeous-Alexander's big shot ended up opening the inside.
"It's a game of runs, and we went on a good run," Diallo said. "Even after we went on our run, we defended, we had energy and were the aggressors after that."
Yante Maten had 17 points, Derek Ogbeide 13 and Rayshaun Hammonds 12 for the Bulldogs (9-3, 0-1), who entered having won five of six this month. They seemed to be able to answer several Kentucky charges in the second half before fading to finish 40 percent from the field.
"They made the plays they needed to make to win the game," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "We had one little stretch where we didn't take care of it in the second half and lost our lead."
Georgia: Despite missing their first 11 3-point shots and finishing just 2 of 21 from behind the arc, consecutive makes by Maten and William Jackson II coming out of the break proved critical. Besides providing a 33-26 lead, the shots set an assertive yet patient tone that paid off on both ends for a while. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, those timely shots, rebounds and steals were mostly missing in the final five minutes.
Kentucky: After playing arguably their best game this season against Louisville, the Wildcats struggled from the field throughout before succeeding late. Gilgeous-Alexander followed up his career-best 24-point effort against Louisville with another 20-point game, hitting 12 of 13 free throws. The 'Cats made 27 of 38 from the line overall.
Livid after Maten was called for fouling Gilgeous-Alexander, Fox drew a technical foul for the protest. "There were back-to-back plays that I thought were similar and had different outcomes," the coach said, "so that is what I was disappointed in." Gilgeous-Alexander made both technical free throws and two more for the foul, allowing Kentucky to trail just 27-26 at the break.
Georgia: Hosts Mississippi on Wednesday night.
Kentucky: At LSU on Wednesday night.