ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Kentucky has been in some close games.
This was a new predicament, however.
With just over 9 minutes to go, the top-ranked Wildcats found themselves down by nine points, facing an inspired Georgia team and a hostile crowd, their perfect season very much in jeopardy.
Kentucky clamped down defensively and turned to freshman Karl-Anthony Towns to carry the offensive load, ripping off a 14-0 run that finally put away the pesky Bulldogs 72-64 on Tuesday night.
Did losing cross the Wildcats’ minds?
Not a chance.
“We think about what we need to do to win the game,” Towns said.
And now, the Wildcats are 30-0, just one win away from a perfect regular season. They’ll try to finish that off Saturday against Florida at Rupp Arena.
From there, it’s on to the Southeastern Conference tournament, where Kentucky will be a huge favorite.
Then comes the NCAA Tournament and an expected No. 1 seed.
At this point, there are not too many more chances for the Wildcats to lose and still reach their ultimate goal: a national championship.
“The championship is much more important than the perfect season,” said Aaron Harrison, who also made some huge plays in the closing minutes. “But we’re winding down.” Perhaps, he surmised, “We’re going to need to be undefeated to win the championship.”
The Wildcats, who improved to 17-0 in the SEC, had won their previous five games by an average of 24 points. They have become a college version of Showtime, drawing plenty of big names every time they take the court, everyone wanting to get a glimpse of a team that has a shot at college basketball’s first perfect season since 1976.
Among those who turned out in Athens: Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick, former NBA star Charles Barkley, disgraced Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, and actress Ashely Judd, hitting the road to watch her beloved Wildcats.
They were really challenged in this one by Georgia (19-10, 10-7), which had the sellout crowd roaring when Yante Maten tipped in a miss of his own shot on the second attempt to put the Bulldogs up 56-47 with 9:12 remaining.
Kentucky has survived a few tight finishes along the way, most notably consecutive overtime wins over Mississippi and Texas A&M at the start of SEC play back in January. Twice this season, they have trailed by as many as 11 points, but both of those deficits were in the first half, when the Wildcats still had plenty of time to seize control.
Georgia, using its quickness on the inside to offset Kentucky’s huge size advantage, had the Wildcats on the ropes after Maten’s hustle play capped a 17-4 spurt.
Andrew Harrison knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner to turn the tide, but Kentucky was still in some trouble when Nemanja Djurisic drove for a basket and Marcus Thornton hit two free throws to make it 62-56 with 5 1-2 minutes to go.
That was Georgia’s last gasp. The Wildcats began pounding the ball inside to the 6-foot-11 Towns, who managed to stay in the game until the closing seconds after picking up his fourth foul. He led the team with 19 points, all but two coming in the second half.
“You have kids here who have a will to win, they believe they’re going to win, and they made the plays they needed to make,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Towns and Aaron Harrison were both huge down the stretch, combining for 12 of the 14 points during the decisive run. Towns had seven, including a three-point play with 2:53 left that put Kentucky ahead to stay. Harrison chipped in with five, and Willie Cauley-Stein came up with a massive dunk off a missed free throw to give the Wildcats a four-point play on one possession.
Georgia hurt its chances by missing three straight 1-and-1s.
“We did some good things, some really good things,” Thornton said. “We just didn’t play perfect enough to win.”
Still, this was a strong indication that Georgia deserves its first NCAA tournament bid since 2011. The Bulldogs haven’t been ranked all season, but they have a strong RPI and can still reach 20 wins in the regular season with a victory Saturday at Auburn.
“You’re seeing a team that, in my opinion, is a Top 20 team,” Calipari said. “We didn’t play that bad. They fought and played and made plays.”
As Kentucky exhaled after its first close call in a while, a Wildcats fan held up a sign that said it all:
“UK. The Unbeatables.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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