Finally, Georgia advances again in SEC Tournament

NASHVILLE – Hello, second round! It’s been a minute.

Georgia could say that late Wednesday night after managing to get past the first round of the SEC Tournament for the first time in three years. The 11th-seeded Bulldogs (17-15) bested No. 14 seed Missouri 64-59 at Bridgestone Arena.

And it was way harder than anybody anticipated against an opponent that entered winless in conference play (0-18, 8-25 overall). Georgia was down 59-52 with 3:38 to play.

The Bulldogs finished the game on a 12-0 run.

“We responded about as strong as you can respond,” coach Mike White said.

Thank Blue Cain and Justin Hill for that response. Not only did the freshman-senior guard duo lead the Bulldogs with 19 and 17 points, respectively, they each played hero down the stretch after Georgia fell behind by seven inside the final four minutes.

First, Georgia chipped away at the deficit behind Cain’s 3-pointers. The freshman from Knoxville made five in the game. Then Cain, Hill and RJ Melendez put together some game-winning moves.

Trailing 59-55 with 2:34 to play, Cain stole Missouri’s inbounds pass and quickly got the ball inside the lane to Melendez under the basket. Melendez’s rushed layup rimmed out, but the junior got the rebound and hit Hill with an outlet pass at the right wing. The senior guard buried a 3-pointer to give Georgia a 60-59 lead with 1:43 to go. It was Hill’s third trey of the contest.

On the other end, Missouri’s Nick Honor missed a 3-pointer. Cain went high for the rebound and the Bulldogs tried to run some clock with a one-point lead. They just about ran out of clock, and Cain had to rush up another 3-pointer. He missed this time.

Georgia guard RJ Melendez (15) goes up for a shot as Missouri forward Noah Carter (35), left, and center Connor Vanover (75) defend during the first half of a NCAA college basketball game at the Southeastern Conference, Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Missouri called timeout with 42 seconds to go. But after that the Tigers failed on three point-blank shots with two offensive rebounds. Finally, Hill came away with the ball and was fouled.

He made both ends of a one-and-one for a 62-59 lead. Another missed trey by Missouri resulted in two more Cain free throws and the final margin. After missing on five of their first eight foul shots, the Bulldogs made five of their last six. The game ended on a 12-0 Georgia run.

“I feel like we’ve been in that position plenty of times this year,” said Hill, who helped the Bulldogs improve to 6-4 in one-possession games in the final 30 seconds. “We carry ourselves well in those situations.”

Georgia advancing didn’t seem likely when it was down seven with 3:38 to do. White called a timeout with the Bulldogs down five seven seconds earlier to deliver a simple message.

“I just said respond,” White said. “We know there’s always going to be adversity, so respond to it.”

Cain and Hill were listening. Hill beat the shot-clock with a pull-up jumper on Georgia’s next possession. A Russel Tchewa free throw bridged that play to the game-defining moment that was Cain’s diving steal.

“Coach likes to say that, ‘always respond,’” the 6-foot-5 Cain said. “He probably says that probably 100 times a day. We know it’s a game of runs, we’ve just got to be ready to respond.”

That response allowed the Bulldogs to save face. Georgia made quick one-game exits in 2022 and 2023. The Bulldogs also were ousted after just one game in the 2021 tournament when they received a first-round bye only to lose to Missouri in a Thursday game. Georgia last won a first-round game in 2020, beating Ole Miss 81-63, but the tournament was canceled before a second-round game against Florida the next day due to the oncoming surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida is the team that awaits the Bulldogs on Thursday. The Gators (21-10, 11-7) beat Georgia twice during the regular season on the way earning a No. 6 seed in this year’s tournament. But while that may offer good vibes to the Florida camp, they also know that the Bulldogs very much could have won when they fell 102-98 in overtime in Gainesville on Jan. 27. Georgia jumped ahead by 11 points in the first half and led by six in the second when the two teams met again on Feb. 17 in Athens. The Gators prevailed 88-82 that time, outscoring the Bulldogs 48-36 in the second half.

White didn’t even want to talk about the Florida matchup as the clock on his postgame press conference rolled past midnight.

“I want to feel really good about this one through the post-game pizza,” White quipped. “... We’ve absolutely got our hands full.”

As for Wednesday night’s game, the pressure was all on Georgia. The Bulldogs were facing a team that was winless in SEC play this year and one they beat 75-68 in Columbia, Missouri, way back on Jan. 6.

Tipoff was delayed for nearly a half-hour when Arkansas and Vanderbilt, the 12 vs. 13 game, went into overtime. The Razorbacks (16-16) overcame a 15-point deficit to win 90-85.

The Bulldogs were playing their third straight game without injured starter Jabri Abdur-Rahim (ankle).

Georgia shot out to a 12-point lead in the first half, surging ahead 21-9 on RJ Sunahara’s layup and staying ahead by as many as eight points with a minute and a half remaining in the opening period.

But Missouri would finish the first half on a 7-0 run with a couple of highlight-reel plays in the last 36 seconds. First, 7-5 center Connor Vanover beat the shot clock with a 17-foot jump shot that drew a 30-second timeout from Georgia.

Then, trying to find a good shot while running out the first-half clock, the Bulldogs settled for another 3-point try from Hill. He missed, and Missouri’s Sean East went coast-to-coast with the rebound, converting a fast-break lay-in and getting fouled by Silas Demary in the process. The free threw left the Bulldogs clinging to a 31-30 lead at halftime.