To say that Georgia hadn’t won this sort of game lately misses the point. Georgia hadn’t won any game since Feb. 1; it had won twice since Jan. 4. At 12-13, the Bulldogs had played their way out of NCAA tournament at-large consideration, a massive disappointment for the team with the NBA’s presumptive No. 1 pick on its roster.
Give Georgia this, though: It didn’t lose Wednesday. It faced Auburn, ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll, and won 65-55. In the grand scheme, this figures to be a more significant game for the Tigers, who fell two games behind Kentucky in the SEC, than for the Bulldogs, who don’t figure to go anywhere of note, but the victors treated it as a point proved.
Said Anthony Edwards, who scored 18 points: “Coach (John) Linehan (a Georgia assistant) told us they had the mentality they were going to beat us in warm-ups. We felt disrespected and came out and played hard.”
On Jan. 11 at Auburn, the Tigers beat Georgia 82-60. This night their biggest lead was two points. They looked like the second-best team on the floor all game. The Bulldogs weren’t especially precise – they made 36.8 percent of their shots and had 15 turnovers – but they did the stuff they hadn’t been doing in falling to 2-10 in SEC play. They guarded. They rebounded. They made the shots that needed making. They built a lead and held it.
Said coach Tom Crean: “I loved our huddles. We did not lose belief at any time.”
Another stat for you, one that every team counts but that shows in no box score: Georgia had 35 deflections in the second half. “I don’t know I’ve ever had a team do that,” Crean said. Then: “We’ve got to be in the fight. I said a week ago after South Carolina we were never in the fight. (They weren’t, trailing by 18 at the half and losing 75-59). We had to establish toughness.”
After South Carolina, Crean worked up a game of wiffle ball for his players. “You try to do different things to keep them moving in the right direction,” he said. Then, being honest: “We still lost the next game (at Texas A&M on Saturday.)”
Didn’t lose this one, though. There’s a chance Wednesday’s result said more about Auburn – which started the season 15-0 having played nobody of consequence and rose to the top of the SEC by winning four games in overtime – than it did Georgia, but when you’re under .500 on the far side of Valentine’s Day you’ll take anything. (Of note: The Tigers were without injured freshman Isaac Okoro of McEachern High, who is, said coach Bruce Pearl, “as good as any player in our league.”)
Said Pearl, who took Auburn to last year’s Final Four behind an all-Atlanta backcourt of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown: “This game matters more to us because it’s Georgia.” Also on his mind were the SEC standings – “We wanted to go to Rupp Arena (on Feb. 29) with a chance to win the league; we’re not in that position now” – and NCAA seeding. “Ten points on the road makes a difference in the NET rankings,” which haven’t been overly kind to the Tigers. Auburn entered at No. 25 in NET.
Such considerations are beyond Georgia’s reach – this year, anyway. Which isn’t to say the Bulldogs can’t make something of the regular season’s final five games and the SEC tournament. At game’s end, Edwards ran to the Georgia student section and waved both hands. He also did a fair bit of yelling. “I went to the crowd to tell them we can win some games, so y’all stick and ride with us.”
Two months from now, Edwards will be prepping for the June draft. After a flu-ridden 10 days, he showed Wednesday he hasn’t checked out on his college teammates just yet. He said he’d been in the gym “every night until 11, 12 o’clock” trying to relocate his jump shot. He made seven turnovers, but there was nothing halting about his effort. His 3-pointer with 2:15 left put Georgia over the top, and his late-game defense against J’von McCormick, the only Tiger capable of making a basket, was masterful.
About that crowd: The announced attendance was 10,181, and by game’s end the refurbished barn looked full and was demonstrably vibrant. Said Crean: “The fans were here and on their feet. The win is awesome, no question about it, but the bottom line is we’re building a program. We’re going through adversity, but you don’t get a program built if you lose momentum with your fans. They’re staying with us, and I’m so thankful for that.”
Someone asked if, with players of tender years who’d lost eight of nine and who’ll be able to watch their leading scorer in the NBA come November, Crean had worried about a bad stretch turning truly awful over this next month.
“I don’t think like that,” he said. “I’m very confident in how we’re building the program. I went through Year 2 at Marquette and Year 2 at Indiana – those are bears. When you have a track record, you’ve seen how guys have to persevere. If I thought like that, it would probably have come out in tonight’s game.”
Into Year 2 at Georgia, Crean’s SEC record is 5-26. Pearl’s SEC record after two seasons at Auburn was 9-27. In Year 4, the Tigers made the Big Dance. In Year 5, they were a last-millisecond foul against Virginia’s Kyle Guy from playing for the national title.
Said Pearl: “When I was at Tennessee (from 2005-11), there were a couple of teams that weren’t very good. Georgia was one of them. … Tom’s got a program and a roster that can compete in the SEC.”
That roster competed and won Wednesday. It was, you’d have to say, a well-timed win, and it left Crean feeling equal parts happy and relieved. Exiting his postgame media briefing, he turned to a reporter and said: “We’ll get there. We always do.”
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