Georgia doesn't have the richest history in men's basketball, but it has produced SEC champions and been to Final Fours. Many of the players who helped hang the banners at Stegeman Coliseum were back in the building on Saturday on the occasion of Letterman's Day.
About that, coach Tom Crean was cringing Saturday. Crean was scheduled to meet with the lettermen after the Bulldogs' game against Ole Miss, and it didn't go well. Not only did Georgia lose its eighth consecutive SEC game, but it was blown out at home 80-64 on an afternoon the team was wearing retro uniforms.
“I'm embarrassed right now to be honest,” Crean said. “It means a lot, a lot, an awful lot that they were here and we hit that hard with the team yesterday. The hardest losses you take is when you have coaches and lettermen in the stands. That's the worst.”
Unshakably upbeat most of the season, Crean showed signs of frustration following the home-court loss Saturday. He bemoaned continued issues with turnovers, on-the-ball-defense and general “mental toughness.” He even second-guessed the decision he made last spring to honor the scholarships of all the Bulldogs’ returning players.
“It's all on me because I'm the one who decided to keep these guys,” Crean said during his postgame news conference. “It's all on me, and I get it. The last thing I can do after making the decision to keep guys on in the spring is now get overly mad at them because I'm the one who made the decision. I live with that every day.”
Crean's frustration was understandable after the team's performance Saturday. Well, at least for the last 35 minutes.
Georgia actually shot ahead out of the gate. The Bulldogs made their first three 3-pointers and shot 71.8 percent from the floor to build a 10-point lead just four minutes in and forcing a timeout from Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis.
But the Bulldogs went from up 18-8 to down 45-33 by halftime. It was the result of the their worst stretch of turnovers of the season, and that's saying something for the SEC's worst ball-handlers. Georgia lost possession of the ball 16 times in the final 15:11 of first-half play. That brought on the first home-crowd boos of the season, and they were well-earned.
Nowhere was it more stark than the final seconds of the half. Coming out of a timeout with five seconds to play, Georgia turned the ball over on a five-second violation trying to inbound the ball under its own basket. Then, after Ole Miss gave the ball right back on a traveling violation, Tyree Crump was called for a push-off foul trying to get off a final shot. Georgia never got that shot.
That gave Georgia a season-high 16 turnovers for the first half. The season-high, game total of 26 against Texas seemed in easy reach. The Bulldogs added just four more the rest of the way but also lost any sense of offensive aggression. Meanwhile,, they were out-rebounded 38-32 --including 13-9 on offense -- and Ole Miss scored 19 points off turnovers.
“Those turnovers hurt us, but just not having that fight and and not coming back and trying to hit them, that was just really disheartening,” said sophomore forward Nicolas Claxton, who had his third lowest scoring output of the year with nine points. “For us to come out like that and not play hard, we just need to get it right.”
Junior guard Jordan Harris led the Bulldogs with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Tyree Crump and Rayshaun Hammonds also scored 10, but Hammonds also had a team-worst five turnovers and fouled out five minutes to play.
“Everybody's just got to sell out; we've just got to fight to the end,” Harris said. “No one likes playing from behind, but when we get behind a lot of negative things carry over and it gets worse. That is something we're working on.”
Georgia (10-13, 1-9 SEC) has lost eight consecutive SEC games for the first time since it lost 10 in a row in 2009, when coach Dennis Felton was fired amid that streak. Ole Miss -- which also is in its first season under new coach Kermit Davis -- improves to 16-7 overall and 6-4. Junior guard Breein Tyree led the Rebels with a career-high 31 points.
The Bulldogs will look to break the losing streak Tuesday at Texas A&M. The Aggies entered Saturday with the same 1-8 SEC record as did Georgia. But it will only get better if Crean can initiate some profound change.
“We're working on mental toughness every day,” Crean said. “When you've lost some games, you're either going to move up on it or it's going to come down on you and we saw that a little too much today. ... I spent way too much time today trying to keep everybody up.”
That includes himself as well.