ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia's players insisted the Tony Cole fiasco didn't bother them once they stepped onto the court Sunday.
That might have been hard to believe in the final 6 1/2 minutes, when No. 2 Kentucky turned a one-point deficit into a big lead and a 74-66 victory in front of a sold-out crowd at Stegeman Coliseum.
If not for the damning and damaging accusations by Cole, a former Bulldogs point guard, who knows? Maybe the Bulldogs don't turn the ball over on four critical possessions,allowing Kentucky breathing room. Maybe Georgia summons the will to keep the Wildcats from winning their 18th straight game.
The most tumultuous week in coach Jim Harrick's four-year coaching tenure might have played a role in Sunday's loss, but Kentucky played a bigger one. The Wildcats (24-3, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) dominated the Bulldogs (17-8, 9-5 SEC) on the boards and tightened the clamps on defense when it mattered to assure themselves at least a share of the SEC East title.
"They're undefeated in the league for a reason," Harrick said. "They've really got it rolling."
The Bulldogs seemed to be rolling along nicely last week. They won at Mississippi on Wednesday and carried a four-game winning streak into what figured to be a monumental two-game stretch. No. 4 Florida visits Athens on Tuesday, so the chance was there for Georgia to do something special.
Everything changed Thursday evening, when Cole - who was kicked off the team last year after being charged with aggravated assault with intent to rape, a charge that was later dropped - told ESPN that Harrick and his son, assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr., violated NCAA rules. His allegations included academic fraud and illegal financial benefits.
"I think this is a publicity stunt," Georgia guard Ezra Williams said of Cole. "He found some people that will listen to him and put him on TV, and he's taken advantage of it. ... It's kind of a slap in the face to everybody at the university."
Harrick Jr. was suspended indefinitely without pay. Harrick has denied the allegations and said Cole will be proved wrong.
"He's a bitter young man," Harrick told CBS before Sunday's game. "He's very revengeful of things anyone has ever done for him."
Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley said Harrick assured him Cole's claims are untrue. The school is investigating the issue.
"Anytime you recruit high-risk athletes, there's a possibility it will not work out," Dooley said. "When it backfires on you, you have to pay the price."
On the court, teams have paid a steep price when facing Kentucky's defense. The Wildcats entered the game tops in the conference in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense, 3-point defense and rebounding defense.
Kentucky held Georgia to a season-low 37.5 percent from the field and held a 50-32 rebounding advantage.
Georgia's star backcourt of Williams, Jarvis Hayes and Rashad Wright was held to a combined 13-of-38 shooting, and Hayes scored just 11 points on a 5-for-15 clip after averaging 27 points in his previous three games.
"I wish we could have shot better," Harrick said, "but maybe (Kentucky) is the reason."
Georgia took a 54-53 lead on a Williams follow shot with 6:27 remaining, but the only field goal the Bulldogs mustered from there was a desperation 3-pointer by Wright with 14 seconds left..
Kentucky went on an 11-1 run after Williams' basket, and the Bulldogs' offense seemed frazzled during the four-turnover stretch that cost them the game.
Wright threw away a pass. Center Steve Thomas threw away another, then lost the ball in the lane. Forward Chris Daniels threw one away, and Kentucky scored on the other end to put the Bulldogs out of it.
"That was really the difference in the game," Harrick said.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org