Dawgs Brace for UGA/UK III

ATLANTA - The game that was the talk of the SEC Tournament before it was even on the schedule materialized Thursday.

Georgia's 73-59 win over Auburn in the first round set up 'Dogs-'Cats III, the third game this year between Georgia and No. 8 Kentucky.

"Who ever would have thought that Georgia-Kentucky would be such a big event?" Georgia coach Dennis Felton said.

The Bulldogs (16-12) juiced up today's matchup by beating the Wildcats (23-4) twice during the regular season. Since 1920, only one team (Tennessee, 1979) has beaten the Wildcats three times in a season. The game will be televised by Jefferson-Pilot.

"I expect as motivated and inspired a performance out of an opponent as we could ever possibly imagine," Felton said, "but I like the way our guys compete, too."

The game had a buzz well before Georgia dispatched Auburn, even with Felton, who acknowledged Wednesday the then-potential matchup would be a big draw.

"I always want to be a team that plays in big games so if a lot of people are talking about it, it must be a big game and that means we've done something to be playing in a big game," he said.

Kentucky players expressed their desire for the rematch earlier this week.

"If we do end up matched up with (Georgia), we should be ready for them and pretty much shut them down," forward Chuck Hayes said.

Georgia's players expect the Wildcats' best, but senior guard Damien Wilkins said, "They can't possibly be as hungry as we are."

The game is critical for the Bulldogs' NCAA Tournament hopes. Felton said he thinks Thursday's win alone makes his team deserving of an at-large bid, but he won't feel good about that prediction unless Georgia gets one more victory.

"What would make me very, very confident is if we could win another game," he said. "That would end any doubt."

For the Wildcats, who have an NCAA spot locked up, the main thing on the line is pride. Georgia has accounted for half of Kentucky's losses this season. After the last loss, Wildcat coach Tubby Smith questioned his players' toughness. The thought of that 74-68 defeat in Athens still bothers Smith.

"No one did anything good there," he said. "They all sucked. We all sucked there."

Several Kentucky players acknowledged after the second game that Georgia's physical play took them out of their games.

"(Kentucky) just comes out and out-toughs a lot of teams. Some teams back down, but the two times we played them, we held up to it,"

Georgia's Chris Daniels said. "That's always a good feeling when you get into their heads, and they are thinking about you rather than what they should be doing."

Erik Daniels and Hayes, the Wildcats' starting forwards, combined for 11 points against Georgia in Athens.

"I just think we have to go out there and show people we can play against tough, physical teams," Erik Daniels said.

The first two games also featured shoving matches under the basket and a handful of technical fouls, but Felton isn't concerned about overheated emotions disrupting today's game, he said.

"I don't take issue with anything about Kentucky," he said. "They're a clean program that wins and wins the right way, and we are, too. The thing I would fear is the officials overreacting and not allowing the players to play."

The matchup between point guards Rashad Wright and Cliff Hawkins will be crucial today. In the first two games, Wright played a combined 77 minutes and had just two turnovers against Hawkins, who is second in the SEC in steals.

Macon native Gerald Fitch could make a difference for Kentucky. The Wildcats' leading scorer (15.4 ppg) scored 10 points in the teams' first meeting but didn't play in the second game due to a sprained finger.

Fatigue also could be a factor as Georgia's overworked quartet of seniors will have to play its first back-to-back games of the season, but Felton said he's confident he'll get maximum effort out of his team. The coach didn't do anything to rest his seniors Wednesday, leaving his starters in until the final buzzer despite leading by double-digits throughout the second half.

"I don't think there's a tougher team than us in the league," Felton said. "We've come to understand we can put out a tremendous amount of energy and do that for as long as we have to play that particular night."

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