No fans allowed as Bulldogs face Gators in SEC tourney

Georgia head coach Tom Crean watches the action in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Georgia head coach Tom Crean watches the action in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Georgia and Florida played before packed arenas in their respective regular-season home games this season. But it will be a strictly family-and-friends affair when they meet again in the second round of the SEC Tournament Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.

The 13th-seeded Bulldogs (16-16) were awarded a third matchup with the fifth-seeded Gators (19-12) after dispatching No. 12 Ole Miss (15-17) in authoritative fashion on Wednesday 81-63 in a first-round “play-in” game. The contest was played before a decent crowd.

But the SEC announced after the Georgia game that spectators will not be allowed at any other games the rest of the week as a health precaution to prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 virus, better known as the coronavirus. Attendance going forward will be limited to the respective teams, necessary game officials, family and friends of players and coaches and credentialed media.

The decision was made in a hastily called late-afternoon emergency meeting of SEC presidents and chancellors and senior conference administrators. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey made the decision official following the UGA-Ole Miss post-game press conferences.

Sankey said some new information from the NCAA Board of Governors initiated the change from no initial restrictions, which was reached this past weekend. Fans will be issued full refunds, he said.

“We had to make some difficult decisions through the day,” Sankey said. “We’re going to continue the tournament (because) I continue to believe it’s important that we give all 14 teams who arrived here in Nashville the opportunity to play for the conference championship, our automatic bid, and we’re going to do that.”

The NCAA Tournament, including the finals in Atlanta, also will be played without spectators. Meanwhile, the NBA suspended its play until further notice.

Safety concerns aside, it’s going to make for quite an interesting atmosphere the rest of the way. The Bulldogs lost both their matchups with the Gators this season, but only after building significant leads each time. Most notably, Georgia blew a 22-point lead over the final 16 minutes of its 81-75 loss in Gainesville. The Bulldogs lost a 13-point lead in what ended up as a 14-point loss in the rematch in Athens on March 4.

Georgia didn’t learn of the SEC’s no-fans plan until after their win Wednesday night. But even while the Bulldogs were still processing that information, making good on those two defeats and advancing to Friday’s quarterfinals was foremost on their minds.

But while 20,000 spectators showed up for those earlier games, this time Georgia and Florida will compete before an intimate crowd of maybe a couple hundred.

“Does my wife get to come?” Georgia coach Tom Crean quipped of his notoriously passionate spouse, Joanie. “Our families are going to have to bring it, right?”

Said senior guard Jordan Harris: “We’ve got to bring our own energy.”

The Bulldogs certainly displayed a lot of energy Wednesday night in avenging a 10-point home loss to Ole Miss in late January, Harris and teammate Rayshaun Hammonds in particular. Hammonds had a double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds and Harris made 8-of-11 shots — including three 3-pointers — on the way to 21 points. Freshman point guard Sahvir Wheeler added 15 points and eight assists for the Bulldogs, who shot 54.5% for the game.

That was particularly important because star freshman Anthony Edwards didn’t have it Wednesday night. The SEC freshman of the year and leading scoring freshman in America was 2-for-13 on the night and scored just six points. But he also had four assists and the Bulldogs were plus-18 against the Rebels when he was on the floor. That’s why Crean kept him in the game for all 40 minutes.

“We asked a lot of him,” Crean said. “He had the Breein Tyree matchup. That’s not easy. ... Anthony did a lot to impact the game and get the win, certainly.”

One of the key plays in the game was Edwards’ defense of Tyree, the SEC’s leading scorer, on the Rebels’ final possession of the first half. After Tyree drove into the lane in the final seconds, Edwards rose up in front of him and severely altered his shot. The Bulldogs got the rebound and a quick outlet to Wheeler allowed him to pull up from 35 feet and nail a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Instead of a 38-32 lead, Georgia went in at the half leading 41-30. It had led by as many as 17 in the first half even though Edwards was scoreless.

“At the end of the day I’m a ballplayer,” Edwards said. “Scoring the ball doesn’t always effect what I do on the court. I can affect the game in many other ways, like playing defense and being a decoy on offense and rebounding, deflections, all that.”

Georgia needs Edwards to play better than he did in the last game against Florida. He scored 14 points but was 3-for-10 shooting and had three turnovers. He scored 32 in Gainesville but had a 13-minute drought while the Gators executed their largest comeback in school history.

“Coach Crean always say momentum is up for grabs,” Wheeler said. “We had some momentum-grabbing plays tonight and that helped us.”

Georgia has gotten on a roll in some catastrophe-altered SEC tournaments before. The last-place Bulldogs won the 2008 SEC tournament championship after the games had to moved to Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum following a tornado strike at the Georgia Dome.

“Yes, (Georgia) President (Jere) Morehead reminded me of that just a little bit ago,” Crean said with a laugh. “We have to win four more for that to happen. We’re just going to worry about Florida.”