Tom Crean had tried everything to get his young basketball team out of its rut. Last week, before it went on the road to Texas A&M, the Georgia coach even surprised the Bulldogs with a game of whiffle ball on the practice courts.
“I thought I made a good move,” Crean said with a chuckle. “I thought it might relax them. We still lost, but you just try to do different things to keep them moving in the right direction.”
Perhaps it had a delayed effect. That, or maybe Georgia is just finally coming of age.
Whatever the secret ingredient was, the Bulldogs broke a four-game losing streak Wednesday night and they did it in impressive fashion with a 65-55 upset victory over No. 13 Auburn. An appreciate crowd of 10,181 was on hand to witness it.
“The fans were here and were on their feet,” Crean said. “The win was awesome, no question about it. But the bottom line is we’re building a program.”
Georgia (13-13, 3-10 SEC) had lost five straight to Auburn. The Tigers (22-4, 9-4) also lost at Missouri this past Saturday. They’re playing without freshman Isaac Okoro of Powder Springs, their No. 2 scorer.
After blowing all manner of substantial second-half leads this season, the Bulldogs held on this time. When Georgia lost a nine-point lead late in the first half, it responded with a run of its own to build it back. And when Auburn got within four with just over three minutes remaining, Georgia pushed it back to five, then eight, then nine and finally 10.
“This game we might’ve lost earlier in the year,” said freshman point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who had 13 points and four assists. “That was maturity.”
Quiet for long stretches again Wednesday night, star freshman Anthony Edwards made some big noise at critical times. His 3-pointer at the 2:15 mark pushed the Bulldogs ahead 58-50. With 54 seconds remaining, he not only blocked J’Von McCormick’s 3-point attempt, he rejected it line-drive style out of bounds over the Auburn bench.
When the final horn sounded, Edwards raised his arms and screamed toward the concrete roof. Then he ran toward the Georgia student section jumped up-and-down with his classmates in unison celebration.
“We’ve gotten beaten up, but I went to the crowd and told them we can win some games, so y’all stick and ride with us,” Edwards said, still glowing nearly a half-hour after the game.
Edwards finished with a modest, for him, 18 points and six rebounds. He also had the blemish of six turnovers. But Crean thought it was one of the one-and-done freshman’s finest overall outings of the season.
“Anthony showed at the end of the game when he was on McCormick, just what he is capable defensively,” Crean said. “When he spreads out and plays and locks in defensively on an individual, he is a high, high-level defender. Down the line he could be an elite defender at the next level.”
But Edwards wasn’t the defensive star of the game. That distinction went to freshman Toumani Camara. In addition to seven rebounds, the 6-foot-8 freshman from Belgium finished with 35 deflections – including 19 in the second half – and three steals.
Camara also proved clutch on the offensive end, scoring 10 of his 12 points from the foul line, including seven of nine in the game’s final minute.
Auburn showed fight. The Tigers, who also lost on the road at Missouri this past Saturday, were playing their second game without star freshman Isaac Okoro, who has a hamstring injury. McCormick had 22 points and Samir Doughty added 15.
But coach Bruce Pearl wasn’t making excuses. He was impressed with the raucous environment his team encountered Wednesday night and with what he sees the Bulldogs doing under Crean.
“Just look at the energy in this building,” said Pearl, who had losing SEC seasons his first three years at Auburn. “It’s rebuilding a culture. Adversity builds character. It builds character when you get beat. …. You’ve got to eat some of that for a while, then do something about it.”
For one night at least, Georgia did.
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