Bulldogs face Ohio State in NIT quarterfinals, seek 20th win

The availability of Georgia center Russel Tchewa (54), here grabbing a defensive rebound against Alabama at Stegemen Coliseum earlier this season, could be key to the Bulldogs' fortunes against Ohio State in an NIT quarterfinal matchup Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

The availability of Georgia center Russel Tchewa (54), here grabbing a defensive rebound against Alabama at Stegemen Coliseum earlier this season, could be key to the Bulldogs' fortunes against Ohio State in an NIT quarterfinal matchup Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS – There are only 24 Division 1 men’s teams still playing basketball and Georgia is one of them.

That’s enough to have the Bulldogs excited, even though their journey is in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) rather than the higher-profile NCAA Tournament. That journey continues for coach Mike White’s second Georgia squad as it traveled from Winston-Salem, N.C., site of Sunday’s 72-66 win over Wake Forest, to Columbus, Ohio, where the Bulldogs will face the Ohio State Buckeyes (22-13) in the NIT quarterfinals on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. (ESPN).

The winner of that game will advance to the NIT Final Four, which will be played in Indianapolis at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse on April 2-4. The Ohio State-Georgia winner will face Wednesday’s Seton Hall-UNLV winner. Indiana State vs. Cincinnati and Virginia Commonwealth vs. Utah are the other matchups.

For Georgia, this is an unexpected deep run in its first postseason tournament of any kind since 2017. The Bulldogs (19-13) made the field only after Ole Miss declined one of the SEC’s two slots in the second-tier postseason tournament. LSU accepted the other one but lost to defending NIT champion North Texas in the first round.

Georgia wants more.

“These kids continue to compete in an attempt to lengthen their season,” White said during the postgame press conference at Wake Forest. “They love playing with one another; they care about one another.”

It shows in their play. Georgia put together an incredible performance against the Demon Deacons (20-13), especially considering the extenuating circumstances. The Bulldogs were having to play without two starters and three players overall. Notably missing was 7-foot, 280-pound center Russel Tchewa, who sat out with an undisclosed illness. Meanwhile, 27-game starter Jabri Abdur-Rahim was unable to play for the sixth straight game because of a sprained ankle and 11-game starter RJ Sunahara also sat out with an undisclosed injury.

The resulting front-court mismatch was evident as Wake’s 6-11 center Andrew Carr dominated inside with 31 points and 11 rebounds. But the Bulldogs matched their season high with 14 3-pointers, including five by graduate guard Noah Thomasson and four by freshman Dylan James. Also, Georgia got three 3s from senior guard Justin Hill, who scored 21 points off a bench that outscored the Deacons’ reserves 23-2.

That perimeter attack helped the Bulldogs surge ahead by 19 points four minutes into the second half. However, Georgia saw that lead dissipate down to just four points with 45 seconds to play. A four-point play by Thomasson and key free throws from Hill secured the victory down the stretch.

“Credit to them,” Hill said of the Deacons’ comeback. “They turned it up (on defense) a lot in the second half and it was harder to find (good) shots. We tried to get stops so our defense could lead to offense.”

That win leads to an extremely rare meeting in men’s basketball between Georgia and Ohio State. They’ve met just once in the schools’ long basketball histories and that was way back in 1977. The Bulldogs defeated the Buckeyes 84-80 in overtime in the Louisville Classic Tournament. They also beat No. 7 Louisville in the championship game, which remains one of only two Top 10, non-conference road wins in UGA basketball history.

White is 2-0 against the Buckeyes, with both wins coming while he coached at Florida. The Gators beat Ohio State 74-66 in the second round of the 2016 NIT and 71-68 in the championship game of the Fort Meyers Tip Off tournament in November of 2021.

As for this year’s Buckeyes, they’re in their second season under the direction of 37-year-old Jake Diebler, who took over as interim head coach in February of 2023 after Chris Holtmann was fired. Ohio State finished ninth in the 14-team Big Ten with a 9-11 record this year before falling to Illinois 77-74 in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis. The Buckeyes defeated Cornell 88-83 and Virginia Tech 81-83 to reach the NIT quarterfinals.

Georgia football fans will recognize the name of the Buckeyes’ leading scorer -- Bruce Thornton. He is the son of the former Georgia running back and defensive back of the same name. His mother, the former Tiaunna Briggans, also is a UGA alum and played for the Lady Dogs’ basketball team from 1997-2001.

Their son grew up in Fairburn and graduated from Alpharetta’s Milton High School before signing with Ohio State in 2022. The 6-2, 215-pound Thornton is the Buckeyes’ top scorer and playmaker. He averages 15.8 points per game and also is No. 2 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at plus-3.85.

Thornton is expected to play Tuesday night despite having to sit out the final 1:44 of Wednesday’s win over Virginia Tech. He fell to the court hard on a foul while going to the basket Saturday night in Columbus. He finished with 12 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and just one turnover.

Thornton is one half of a lethal backcourt that includes 6-4 sophomore guard Rodney Battle (13.6 points per game). The Buckeyes also get 15.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game from 6-7 junior forward Jamison Battle.

As usual, bench play and defense likely dictate will how Georgia does in 19,049-seat Value Center Arena Tuesday night. The Bulldogs on Sunday improved to 28-2 in two seasons under White when they hold an opponent under 70 points in a game. Meanwhile, Georgia ranks 20th nationally in bench scoring at 28.6 points per game and has outscored opponents’ reserves in 28 and 35 games this season. The Bulldogs are 5-6 in true road games this season.

A victory Tuesday would get Georgia to 20 wins for the first time since 2016 when it went 20-16. While that’s only a four-game improvement over last year, the Bulldogs have been much more competitive overall this season. Seventeen of their 35 games have been one-possession contests in the final five minutes of play, including 12 in the final 30 seconds. Georgia is 9-8 and 7-5 in those games, respectively.

Accordingly, the Bulldogs’ last four games have been decided by an average margin of 4.5 points. They’re 3-1 in that stretch.

“It may not always be pretty in terms of execution,” White said of his team. “We’re not the best rebounding team. You know, we have our deficiencies. But everyone does and our guys enjoy playing with each other and being around each other.”