Young Bulldogs’ play encouraging as season nears end

Georgia’s 61-60 Senior Night loss to Texas A&M on Wednesday was a heartbreaker for the home team, but there were some signs of encouragement.

While it was probably the last time that Bulldogs fans will see senior Yante Maten play at home, they did get a good opportunity to glimpse the kind of production freshman guard Teshaun Hightower is capable of.

In 22 minutes of play, Hightower had a breakout game, tallying season highs in points (11), rebounds (five) and assists (four). He was on the floor in clutch time, although a costly turnover at the 1:09 mark opened the door for the Aggies to escape with the SEC victory.

“He’s a really talented young player, and he’s really torn up about the turnover,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said after the game. “It’s just a part of playing – sometimes you’re going to make some errors. And obviously it came at a critical time. But he’s a very gifted young player who continues to get better and he took a real step forward tonight and it was good to see him do that.”

For all the preseason conversations about Georgia’s returning talent – and Maten has more than done his part on behalf of the veterans, averaging a league-leading 19.5 points per game – the progress of the Bulldogs’ freshman class has been a bright spot in what has turned into a disappointing season.

“A lot of times we had three freshmen out there together,” Fox said. “And those guys are growing up.”

Besides Hightower, who has averaged 3.1 points in the 25 games in which he has appeared, rookies who made significant – if sporadic – contributions this winter included Rayshaun Hammonds (6.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Nicholas Claxton (3.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), which bodes well for the long term.

What is of a more immediate concern for Georgia (16-13, 7-10 SEC) is its 6 p.m. game Saturday at No. 16 Tennessee (22-7, 12-5). Defeating the Volunteers in a sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena isn’t out of the question, as the Bulldogs have a five-game winning streak over Tennessee and Georgia has toppled three Top 25 teams this season.

And it could help Georgia avoid a Wednesday “play-in game” at next week’s SEC tournament in St. Louis. And at this point, the only way the Bulldogs will make the NCAA tournament is by winning the conference tournament.

But since the two teams met at Stegeman Coliseum on Feb. 17 (a 73-62 Georgia win), the Bulldogs have been up and down with a 1-2 mark, and Tennessee has been all up -- with victories over Florida, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Fox – who excused his players from postgame interviews -- did not have much to say after the Texas A&M game about the looming scuffle with the Volunteers, except that it’s once again time to look ahead.

“They’re obviously very disappointed right now, so we’ll regroup tomorrow and try to do what we’ve done the whole year – put the last game in the rearview mirror and focus forward for the next game,” said Fox.

In Georgia’s victory two weeks ago against Tennessee, the Bulldogs had five players score in double figures, got 29 points from its bench and shot 38 free throws (making 27) to the Volunteers’ 15 trips to the line. And in the much-anticipated battle of the big men, Maten finished with a game-high 19 points, while Tennessee’s Grant Williams fouled out late with just five points and four rebounds.

Williams followed up with 23 points against Florida, but managed only six points against Ole Miss and eight points against Mississippi State, so it remains to be seen if that matchup will be a difference-maker.

What may be of more interest is the play of 6-foot-5 junior Admiral Schofield, who has averaged nearly 22 points per outing in Tennessee’s past three games. Against Georgia earlier this season, Schofield had 11 points and four rebounds in 31 minutes.