Dogs look to close strong vs. Gators

A … B … C. “Always … Be … Closing.”

That was one of the key lines from Alec Baldwin’s character, Blake, from the 1992 classic movie “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And while most of Georgia’s players weren’t born when that Academy Award-nominated film was released, they would be well-served to apply that real-estate mantra to their work on the basketball court.

The Bulldogs (10-5, 1-2 SEC), who play host to SEC basketball nemesis Florida (10-6, 3-0) on Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum, insist they don’t have a closing problem. But their results early in SEC play suggest otherwise.

Had Georgia been more proficient while playing with a lead late in its games, it may well be undefeated in SEC games today rather than two games behind the Gators. And while they got to the finish line with a “W” in an impressive road victory at Vanderbilt on Wednesday, the Bulldogs’ closing deficiency was exposed in that game, too.

Georgia led the Commodores by 11 points with 2:47 to play, but saw that advantage disintegrate to two twice within the final 30 seconds before finally securing victory at the free-throw line. The Bulldogs made 10 of their last 11 free throws for the 70-67 win.

Georgia also had a double-digit second-half lead in a 79-75 loss to Arkansas and led LSU by eight with 1:44 remaining in overtime before losing 87-84 in double-OT.

“I wouldn’t call it a problem,” said senior forward Marcus Thornton, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer and rebounder. “The great teams we’re going to play in this league are going to compete all the way until the buzzer sounds. Our job if we are leading or not is to compete all the way to the buzzer and not give up or give in. It’s something we’re going to have to continue to work on, and obviously we’re aware of it. We’ll get better there.”

Injuries haven’t helped Georgia’s efforts. The Bulldogs went to Nashville without three of their top eight players and could be without them all again Saturday. Forward Kenny Paul Geno (broken wrist) will be sidelined for several more games. Starting guard Juwan Parker (Achilles tendon) and forward Yante Maten (concussion) remained questionable as of Friday.

More so, though, the Bulldogs have struggled in fundamental areas. Missed free throws and turnovers hurt them in all three games while poor perimeter defense allowed opponents to get open looks. Vanderbilt’s Riley LeChance made three 3s in the final 30 seconds to evaporate most of Georgia’s margin.

“We had two games where we didn’t close well,” said sophomore guard J.J. Frazier, “but I don’t think it’s an issue. We started to play careless. We didn’t take care of the ball. We didn’t focus on free throws. I think it was just a lack of concentration. If we get back to the little things that had us winning games, I think we’ll start rolling again.”

Florida’s a tough team against which to get well. The Gators appeared somewhat vulnerable this season after losing key players from last season’s juggernaut and exiting non-conference play at 7-6. But they picked up where they left off after going undefeated in conference play last season. They beat South Carolina 72-68 on the road and won big at home against Mississippi State and Auburn before busing to Athens on Friday.

“I think they’re playing their best basketball,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I think it’s similar to when we lost Kentavious (Caldwell-Pope); it took us a while to find ourselves. They lost a lot of pieces off last year’s team. But it appears to me they found their identity and where they fit with each other, and I think they’re playing their best basketball. They’ve got a very good basketball team. They just have new faces that are playing.”

No team has inflicted more recent misery on the Bulldogs than Florida. The Gators have won 18 of the past 21 meetings between the schools, and the losses haven’t been close for Georgia, coming by an average of 16.4 points. But the Bulldogs are coming into this one with some unexpected advantages. Not only is Florida having to play on a two-day turnaround after Thursday’s game against Auburn, the Gators are making the trip by bus. The new 737s they are chartering for basketball travel can’t land at Athens’ Ben Epps Airport.

“There are challenges in anybody’s job that you look forward to,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who is 16-1 in two-day turnarounds. “… If you don’t like coaching, you’re probably not going to enjoy these situations.”

Georgia could say the same when it comes to closing games.