Inspired by Mercer win, Georgia ready for La. Tech

Not that they need any more at the moment, but the Mercer Bears have some fans in the Georgia Bulldogs. In fact, one Bulldog predicted Mercer’s upset of Duke on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“That’s one of the upsets I called right,” said Georgia point guard Charles Mann, shortly before the Bulldogs’ practice Friday and soon after the Bears’ 79-71 victory. “Me and J.J. (Frazier) were arguing in the locker room about it (Thursday). He said Duke was going to win, and I said, ‘No, I think Mercer is going to pull an upset.’ And they did it!”

Mann and the Bulldogs were going on more than regional pride and optimism. They played the Bears in November in one of the annual preseason private scrimmages permitted by the NCAA. And it was a barnburner, by all accounts.

The teams played three 15-minute periods, rather than two halves. UGA officials who were there said Mercer won the first period, Georgia the next and the backups battled to a virtual draw in the third.

The Bulldogs also played Mercer early last season and had to fight to pull out a 58-49 victory. So there’s some local knowledge.

“Mercer’s a real good team,” Mann said. “They’ve got a lot of seniors, terrific (big men) and they had a great point guard. I knew any team with a good big would give Duke problems. I called it right.”

Said Georgia coach Mark Fox: “I thought they’d be terrific (this season). We’ve played them the previous three years, too, so I’m really happy that they won today. (Coach) Bob (Hoffman) and I have a great friendship, and we talk quite a bit, so I’m very happy for their team.”

Georgia, meanwhile, is still competing as well, albeit on a considerably smaller stage. The Bulldogs (20-13) will play host to Louisiana Tech (28-7) in an NIT second-round game Saturday at UGA’s Stegeman Coliseum. An 11 a.m. tipoff time was arranged by the tournament so as not to bump too much against the higher-profile event the Bears are playing in.

But Georgia claims to be no less motivated for their contest. And it can’t afford to be.

In the Bulldogs from Ruston, La., Georgia will play host to a team that very much believes it belongs in the other tournament. Louisiana Tech finished in a four-way tie for first in the Conference USA regular season, but Tulsa got the league’s only bid via the automatic qualifier by winning the conference tournament.

The visiting Bulldogs were awarded the No. 3 seed in the NIT and narrowly defeated Iona 89-88 on Wednesday. Georgia, a No. 2 seed, had to rally to defeat Vermont 63-56 the same night. The winner will play the victor of Monday’s game between FSU and Georgetown in the quarterfinals sometime next week.

So Saturday’s game will feature teams with contrasting styles. Louisiana Tech is a high-tempo team that averages 81.3 points per game. Georgia is steeled on defense and rebounding.

“Everyone that’s playing now is good, and they’re very good,” Fox said. “They have a lot of interchangeable parts, shoot the (3-pointer) all over the place. (They have) a lot of guys who can score, force turnovers. They’re an excellent team. It probably came down to the bitter end whether they got in (the NCAA tournament) or not.”

Georgia thinks it belongs there as well, a fact underscored by Mercer’s stunning victory Friday, and it was about this time last year that the Bears ousted Tennessee from the NIT.

“Of course, watching some of these games, I get kind of frustrated and angry,” said Mann, who scored a career-best 29 points in the Bulldogs’ first-round win. “But we put ourselves in this position. So we’ve just got to learn from this and go get it next year. But I’m proud of those guys.”