Winners of 3 straight, UGA heads to Tennessee with more options

Kenny Gaines, a 6-foot-3 freshman guard from Atlanta, is getting more playing time with Georgia.

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Kenny Gaines, a 6-foot-3 freshman guard from Atlanta, is getting more playing time with Georgia.

In the locker room halftime of the South Carolina game this past Saturday, Georgia coach Mark Fox turned to Kenny Gaines and told him he was going to start the second half.

There wasn’t any reason for Gaines, a 6-foot-3 freshman guard from Atlanta, to think that was about to happen. He was scoreless on two attempts in eight minutes in the first half and came in 11th on the team in scoring.

But while “Option A” for the Bulldogs, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, had already poured in 16 points by intermission, Fox's “Option B” choices were running out. Charles Mann had gone down with a shoulder injury shortly before the half ended and Nemanja Djurisic and Donte Williams had two points between them.

So Fox turned to Gaines and said he was going in first.

“Coach was telling us that we really need somebody else to score,” said Gaines, who starred at Atlanta’s Whitefield Academy a year ago. “I didn’t ask why (me). I just said, ‘let’s go do it.’ I was just happy for the opportunity.”

And Gaines made the most of it. He scored six of the Bulldogs’ first eight points of the second half and finished with a career-high 11 points. Mann also shook off his aching shoulder and scored 11 points as well. Not coincidentally, Georgia rolled to a 67-56 road victory.

Alternative scoring options to the always-productive Caldwell-Pope is the main reason why the Bulldogs (10-11, 4-4 SEC) have won four of their last five games and carry a three-game winning streak into Wednesday night’s game against Tennessee (11-9, 3-5) in Knoxville.

“We have a lot of guys chipping in right now,” Fox said shortly before the team departed Athens on Tuesday. “The last two or three games we’ve had a lot of guys making plays. So we’ve had some production outside of Kentavious, by committee, and that’s probably been the biggest reason we’ve been more successful. Just some consistency and some more help.”

That has definitely been the case in the Bulldogs’ four SEC wins. Their first came against LSU on Jan. 19th. In addition to Caldwell-Pope’s 22 points, Donte Williams gave them 14 points. In the win over Texas A&M, Sherrard Brantley (8) and Djurisic (7) combined for 15 while 10 Georgia players overall landed in the scoring column. Mann had 10 points and 6 assists to go with KCP’s 20 against Auburn.

“We’re more consistent in a lot of areas,” Fox said. “We’re getting some better shots and I think we have a better understanding of how to play better. And our defense has been really good. Our defense has forced a lot of misses and that’s been really important, too.”

The Bulldogs head to Tennessee with the fourth-best scoring defense in the league in SEC games (64.5 ppg). Caldwell-Pope enters the game as the SEC’s second-leading scorer at 17.5 points per game.

If there is an “Option B” for the Bulldogs in this game it needs to be on the frontline. Tennessee forwards Jarnell Stokes (6-foot-8, 270 pounds) and Kenny Hall (6-9, 230) are big, physical and productive. Stokes is averaging 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds and Hall, who averages 6.6 and 5.3, is coming off a 14-point performance against Arkansas. However, Hall was arrested for driving on a suspended license Tuesday and his status for the game is unclear.

The Vols will encounter a surging Georgia team that is playing with more confidence – and more options.

“We’ve been showing signs of maturity,” Fox said. “We’ve had pretty good composure recently, whether it be home or on the road. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a lot of teachable moments to come. But I think they’ve just been more poised at certain key times, which is good to see.”