Healthy, happy Thornton leads Georgia into Arkansas

Thornton offered a little pump fake before dribbling down the lane. Finding his path blocked by a pair of 6-foot-10 forwards, Thornton gave a hard fake left, crossed over his dribble and then executed a 360-degree spin move that would make LeBron James proud.

Ooh’s and ah’s came from the crowd, and the move made the lane look as if the Red Sea had parted. Thornton finished with a soft layup from the right side of the rim, and the Bulldogs led by 14 with 16 to play.

“We played that back on film,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said Friday. “Actually it was the right play to make in the situation. Marcus, I think, is just getting comfortable, and knocking the rust off has been key for him.”

Thornton’s play certainly has been key for the Bulldogs, who head to Arkansas on Saturday for a critical SEC matchup at Bud Walton Arena. Georgia (16-11, 10-5 SEC) has won six of its past seven games, including the 71-56 victory over Missouri on Tuesday, to remain in sole possession of third place by two games.

The Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7) are coming off a stunning 71-67 overtime win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Thursday. They are one of four teams trying to chase down the Bulldogs for one of the four coveted double-byes in the SEC tournament.

“Arkansas is playing super, and that was a great win for them,” Fox said. “They have a lot of guys playing well, and they’re finding success right now, so we’ll have to play super.”

Georgia has beaten the Razorbacks once, and Thornton was a big reason why. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound junior had 11 points and 13 rebounds as the Bulldogs used a 56-34 rebounding edge to dispatch Arkansas 66-61 in overtime Jan. 18 in Athens.

Thornton has recorded two other “double-doubles” since, while narrowly missed three others. Coming off a 15-point performance against Missouri, Thornton has averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds for the season, 9.1 and 7.1 in SEC games.

You would never know he had three knee surgeries in three years. The first two came in the offseason, but the third resulted in a medical redshirt season after he played in the first nine games last season.

That left many doubting whether Thornton would live up to the billing that he had when he left Westlake High as Mr. Basketball in Georgia — but not Thornton.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve surprised myself,” Thornton said. “I was very sure I’d come back. It just took longer than I wanted to be at the point I could be consistent. So I’m blessed and fortunate to be able to continue to get better every day, and that’s all I try to do.”

Thornton’s coaches and teammates definitely are impressed.

“I don’t know personally if I could do it,” sophomore guard Kenny Gaines said. “I’ve had a couple of dings myself, and it has taken me a while to get over those. So for him to actually have three surgeries on ligaments and bones, it’s really just a blessing that he’s still able to walk. For him to play at such a high level is definitely amazing.”

Said Fox: “Any time a player has the game taken away from them, certainly by injury, they feel robbed of their experience. But they’re genuinely going to appreciate it when they get back, and I think Marcus is great evidence of that. He’s really enjoying playing. He enjoys practicing; he enjoys every part of it, and you’re seeing the results of that during the games.”

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