Bulldogs’ comeback falls short against LSU

When Georgia star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was on the podium for the postgame news conference and interviews at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday afternoon, he appeared to be his usual reserved, soft-spoken self. But that apparently wasn’t the case in the minutes immediately following the Bulldogs’ 68-63 loss to LSU.

Caldwell-Pope was described as “very emotional” during the 10-minute cooling-off period in the team’s locker room. And who could blame him? The SEC’s reigning player of the year had done almost everything possible to bring the Bulldogs back from a 23-point deficit against LSU in the SEC tournament. And he almost pulled it off.

When his long 3-point attempt bounced off the rim and into LSU hands with 10 seconds to play, Georgia remained three points behind. The Tigers drew a final foul with 6.3 seconds to go and closed out the game from the free-throw line to send the Bulldogs packing for home with a 15-17 final record.

“He went through some emotional things …,” forward Nemanja Djurisic said. “He fought very, very hard to get us back the lead. I think this game kind of hit him a little bit. He really fought. He’s a great team player, and this game really hurt him a lot.”

Caldwell-Pope finished with a career-high 32 points. Twenty-five of those came in the second half. He also hauled in 13 rebounds to record his seventh double-double of the season.

“A great competitor,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “He embodies what an athlete should be. He competes with the heart of a lion and just really plays his heart out. … He tried to lead his team back and made a lot of admirable plays.”

But Caldwell-Pope couldn’t make the last one, and that hurt him the most. After LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant missed two foul shots, Georgia called its final timeout of the game with 21.8 seconds remaining to set up a final play. The Bulldogs partially got what they wanted. That is, the ball ended up in Caldwell-Pope’s hands. But the last shot was a deep 3-pointer from well behind the arc.

“We were trying to either get a quick 2 or a quick 3,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We had to take what we had. It wasn’t a bad look; it wasn’t a good look. I had to create enough space to get the shot off, and it was a great contest.”

Said Fox: “We had a play where we give him a couple of options to score the ball, and he took the jump shot. He’s earned the right to take whatever shot he wants.”

But that’s not where the game was lost. That came in the first 18 minutes, which was enough time for the Bulldogs to fall behind 39-16. Georgia trailed by 20 at halftime.

“We just came out of the gate real slow,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We were being pushed around, ‘out-physicaled.’ We just let them do that.

Fox couldn’t explain the lethargic start.

“We practiced very well this week,” he said. “I thought we had good focus and preparation. We thought we had good energy when they showed up for breakfast today.”

As it is, the ninth-seeded Tigers (19-11) will advance to play No. 1 Florida (24-6) in the quarterfinals Friday. The Bulldogs defeated LSU 68-57 on Jan. 19 in Athens.

Credit Shavon Coleman for much of the Tigers’ success Thursday. The junior wingman came in with a 10.2 scoring average and had shot 25 percent from 3-point range. But playing against Georgia’s power forwards, he was 4-of-5 from beyond the arc and finished with a team-best 24 points.

Andre Stringer scored 16 points, including a comeback-thwarting 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 33 seconds remaining, and O’Bryant added 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Freshman Charles Mann scored 15 points and had five assists for the Bulldogs, and Djurisic had 10 rebounds but only two points, on 1-of-9 shooting.

“Every loss hurts, but this one is tough,” Mann said. “To end the season, to know that we could have won, there’s just nothing we can do now. We just have to get ready for next year and try to get better.”

Said Djurisic: “I knew we were going to give a great effort in the second half. We weren’t going to walk away from the game losing by 15 or 20 points. I just give credit to every one for playing very hard and to Kentavious giving us a spark.”

Now the Bulldogs will have to wait to see whether Caldwell-Pope returns for another season. He must decide over the next two weeks whether to enter the NBA draft.

“That’s not even on my mind right now,” he said.

No, defeat was all Caldwell-Pope could think about Thursday.