NASHVILLE – Georgia’s first season under coach Mike White came to a bitter, disappointing end in the first round of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday. That the Bulldogs blew a late lead against the league’s worst team missing one of its best players only added to the sting.
LSU, which entered as the SEC’s 14th seed, led Georgia from four minutes into the game until there were four minutes left in the game. But after a furious comeback finally saw the Bulldogs pull ahead by two, the Tigers made pretty much every play down the stretch on the way to a shin-kicking 72-67 victory.
“My goodness, we had that one,” White said afterward. “It’s tough. I feel for our guys, I feel for our seniors. I feel for our fans.”
So, it’s the Tigers (14-18), with just their third conference win of the season, who advance to face No. 6 Vanderbilt in Thursday’s second round. Meanwhile, Georgia (16-16, 6-13 SEC) loses its sixth game in a row and heads back to Athens to a closed-for-repairs arena to pack up for the season.
Playing without starting center Derek Fountain, who was injured, LSU managed to get 13 points and 10 rebounds out of his backup, 7-footer Shawn Phillips. Phillips had six of the Tigers’ 18 offensive rebounds and they scored 25 second-half points. LSU’s K.J. Williams added 18 points, which led all scorers.
Georgia got 13 points each from senior center Braelen Bridges and junior guard Justin Hill. The Bulldogs were 21-of-24 from the foul line. Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Kario Oquendo each had 10 points.
Oquendo, Georgia’s second-leading scorer on the season, played only one minute in the second half. White said afterward it was simply because Oquendo was failing to box out on rebounds and play with the defensive intensity the Bulldogs needed to get themselves back in the game. Georgia did that with Abdur-Rahim, Jusuan Holt and Matthew-Alexander Moncreiffe on the floor most of the second half.
“We just got urgent and we realized there was plenty of time to get back in it,” Abdur-Rahim said. “Shots started falling a little bit, we got a little more energized and went on a bit of a run.”
Georgia tied the game at 57-all on Abdur-Rahim’s 3 from the corner with 4:44 to play. After LSU failed on a fast-break opportunity, Abdur-Rahim gave the Bulldogs their first lead in 32 minutes with a pair of free throws at the 4:16 mark.
The killer moment for Georgia came with 3:03 to play. That’s when LSU’s Adam Miller rose up to unleash a 3-point shot from right of the key. Moncrieffe, on the floor most of the second half for his strong defense play, closed hard and leaped to get a piece of the ball. Unfortunately for him, he got a piece of Miller in the process, and the 19-footer went through anyway. Miller made the subsequent free throw, and suddenly the Tigers led by two, 63-61.
Bridges’ offensive play in the second half helped Georgia mount the comeback. But he saw his patented hook shot rim out on the next possession. Another defensive foul by Moncrieffe led to two more LSU free throws.
LSU 72, Georgia 67
Remarkably, Georgia would tie the game again at 67 after Terry Roberts banked in a 3-point shot and Hill converted an old-fashioned three-point play. But Phillips’ tipped putback of a third offensive rebound that was close to being basket interference gave LSU a lead that would last.
Then Bridges couldn’t convert two point-blank chances, with one of his hook shots rimming out. A late LSU basket and free throw set the final margin.
“I got the post touch and I didn’t come through, I didn’t make it,” said Bridges, whose eyes were bloodshot from an emotional Georgia locker room. “It was a big play. It hurts, obviously. It was my last game so, yeah, it hurts.”
Georgia fell behind 42-30 by halftime. It wasn’t hard to figure out how they got there. They simply weren’t valuing the basketball. The Bulldogs had eight first-half turnovers and just four assists. Conversely, the Tigers piled up 10 assists and turned the ball over once. They scored nine points off Georgia’s miscues.
“I thought both teams played really hard,” White said. “We played incredibly hard in the last 17 minutes or so of the game. We left a lot of energy, enthusiasm and positive attitude out there on the floor. … I loved our fight today. This team fought adversity all season. This was a tough way to go out, but I feel like we’ve laid a foundation.”
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