Challenging stretch continues as Georgia Bulldogs visit Florida

Georgia basketball player Toumani Camara (10) drives on Missouri's Kobe Brown during the Bulldogs 80-70 win over the Np. 20 Tigers Feb. 16, 2021, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics)
Georgia basketball player Toumani Camara (10) drives on Missouri's Kobe Brown during the Bulldogs 80-70 win over the Np. 20 Tigers Feb. 16, 2021, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

ATHENS – Considering the stretch Georgia basketball is in the midst of, having to play another road game against another NCAA Tournament contender really is no big deal.

That’s the task for the Bulldogs (13-8, 6-8 SEC) when they face Florida in Gainesville at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network). The Gators (10-6, 6-5), who were projected as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA’s recent “reveal,” will represent Georgia’s fourth of five consecutive opponents expected to hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

“The challenge is making sure that you focus solely on that opponent and what the game plan is for that team,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said of the stretch. “You can’t go backwards or forwards with your mindset. You have to show them what will be needed to win.”

The good news for Georgia is it owns a win against one of those opponents. After road losses at Tennessee and Alabama, the Bulldogs knocked off No. 20 Missouri 80-70 on Tuesday.

Georgia hopes to exact a little revenge on the Gators. Florida beat the Bulldogs 92-84 at Stegeman Coliseum on Jan. 23. And while Georgia’s homecourt loss could loom as an indicator that the Gators are inherently a better overall team, the details therein stand as reasons Georgia believes it can get it done in Gainesville.

There were a lot of reasons the Bulldogs lost, but the most tangible one was the 11 missed free throws in the eight-point defeat (13-of-24, 54.2%). Georgia isn’t the greatest free-throw shooting team in the SEC, but neither is it the worst.

The Bulldogs also were out-rebounded by an embarrassing 41-27 margin and missed 16 3-pointers, which was amplified even more while getting off six fewer overall shots than the Gators. There is much on which they can improve.

“We scored 84 and missed almost half of our free throws,” Crean said of lessons learned the first time. “We also need to get out and run better. … We learned that we need to follow our defensive game plan better. We weren’t nearly aggressive enough in the paint. We have to be a better rebounding team against them.”

Georgia believes it’s a different team than when it hosted the Gators a month ago. While there have been losses since then, there also have been significant conquests. The Bulldogs won three in a row to end January and start February, including a decisive vanquishing of Auburn on the road.

And the latest victory was particularly thorough. Georgia put together a sustained second-half run the likes of which it hasn’t shown all season. After falling behind by 13 five minutes into the second half, the Bulldogs outscored Missouri 45-22 over a 14-minute span to go ahead by 14 points.

It was an impressive display that included intense defense, athletic rebounding, skinned-knees hustle and refined shooting. That aggressive mindset is what the Bulldogs hope to carry into Florida’s O’Connell Center.

“We were more hungry for the win,” said sophomore forward Toumani Camara, who had 15 points and eight rebounds against Missouri. “We just attacked it way harder than we did in the first half, and that’s the way we should play every time. There should not be any question about it.”

Said Crean: “Our team’s resiliency keeps getting better. … Hopefully it manifests itself into something they carry with them throughout the season. When you stick with something and keep persevering, good things happen.”

Georgia must first do a better job on Florida guard Tre Mann, who scored 24 points in the first meeting. Also, the Gators had 16 offensive rebounds, including four each from Anthony Duruji and Omar Payne.

The Bulldogs have played seven games since that last meeting, while Florida has played four. The Gators lost 75-64 to No. 24 Arkansas on Tuesday, their first action following a 13-day hiatus because of COVID-19.

After Florida, the Bulldogs will face LSU for the second time this season. They lost to the Tigers in Baton Rouge 94-92 in overtime Jan. 6.

If there are any thoughts of the postseason extending beyond next month’s SEC Tournament in Nashville, Georgia’s going to have to wrestle down more of these Quadrant 1 opponents.

“I try to stay squarely in the present to help players the best,” Crean said.

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