Frank Anselem-Ibe epitomizes Georgia Bulldogs’ all-in attitude

Georgia center Frank Anselem-Ibe (5) positions himself for a rebound during the Bulldogs' game against Texas A&M at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens Saturday, Mar. 2, 2024. (Olivia Wilson/UGA Athletic Association)

Credit: Olivia Wilson/UGAAA

Credit: Olivia Wilson/UGAAA

Georgia center Frank Anselem-Ibe (5) positions himself for a rebound during the Bulldogs' game against Texas A&M at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens Saturday, Mar. 2, 2024. (Olivia Wilson/UGA Athletic Association)

ATHENS — “Still here. Remember me?”

No, Georgia’s Frank Anselem-Ibe didn’t say that, but his play on the court certainly did during a 79-77 win over Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the NIT on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio.

With starting center Russel Tchewa sidelined again with a flu-like illness, Anselem-Ibe got his second consecutive start and came through – again – in a big way. The 6-foot-10, 215-pound senior from Lagos, Nigeria, recorded the first “double-double” of his 95-game college basketball career with 10 points and 10 rebounds against the Buckeyes. Six of his rebounds came on the offensive end. He also had an assist and two blocked while playing 27 minutes and 22 seconds.

“I’m just glad the coaches gave me an opportunity to go out there and play extended minutes,” said Anselem-Ibe, who transferred to Georgia from Syracuse in 2022. “I think as a team we played really hard, and everyone was there for each other. This entire NIT, we’ve been playing hard together. If you have brothers who play hard, you have no choice but to join them and play hard, too. I’m just glad we got the win.”

With the victory, the Bulldogs (20-16) advanced to the NIT Final Four for only the third time in UGA basketball history. Georgia will take on Seton Hall (23-12) in the 9:30 p.m. national semifinal Tuesday night at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Indiana State (31-6) and Utah (22-14) will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and the winners will face off for the NIT championship Thursday night at 7. All games will be broadcast on ESPN.

In case anyone’s forgotten, Anselem-Ibe also came through for the Bulldogs in their NIT second-round win over Wake Forest on March 24. He played a season-high 27:35 in that one. And while he scored only two points in the 72-66 victory, he contributed a multitude of other ways. He led Georgia in assists with three and added eight rebounds, two blocks and a steal.

So, to review, Anselem-Ibe has averaged 27½ minutes of play in the past two games after averaging 5.9 minutes in SEC play all season.

“Frank has stayed ready all year,” teammate Noah Thomasson said in his weekly radio appearance on the “960 The Ref Morning Show” in Athens on Friday. “He’s been the ultimate teammate. He’s always positive; always ready to go whenever coach (Mike) White calls his name. Here in the NIT, he got his name called, and he did what he’s supposed to do.”

Said White after the Ohio State game: “Frank is such an unselfish guy. He always answers the bell – or rings the bell – when his name is called.”

Anselem-Ibe personifies an attitude that permeates the Bulldogs’ roster and is a big reason they’re still playing into the month of April. The most distinguishing characteristic of Georgia’s first 20-win team in eight years is its bench. UGA’s reserves have outscored their opponents’ backups in 29 of 36 games this season. That includes a 22-17 margin in the latest outing against Ohio State and 23-2 when they beat Wake Forest.

For the season, Georgia ranks 21st nationally in bench scoring (28.4 ppg) and boasts a margin of plus-372 points, or 10.3 per game. The Bulldogs feature 12 players who average 8.5 minutes per game or better. By comparison, Seton Hall has eight such players, with four starters averaging 32 minutes or more per game.

Being a “key reserve” is not exactly the role Anselem-Ibe envisioned for himself coming out of high school. He was identified at an early age as a basketball player destined for greatness. That’s what brought him to America and to Atlanta as a teenager.

Well before he became a 4-star recruiting prospect, he played for coach Darron Rogers at Westlake High School, then for Omar Gonzalez at Lincoln Academy in Suwanee. Eventually, Anselem-Ibe ended up playing for Prolific Prep in Napa, California. It’s there that he earned national notice and ended up signing with Syracuse as the nation’s 26th-ranked center, per 247Sports.

Anselem-Ibe played in 36 games over two seasons for the Orange, starting six, before deciding to come back to the area he considers his U.S. home. He played in 31 games and started six for the Bulldogs last season.

This season, Georgia turned to Tchewa, a 7-foot, 280 pound graduate transfer from South Florida, as their primary man in the pivot. While “backup” is not the role that Anselem-Ibe envisioned when he joined the Bulldogs, it is one he accepted and, at times, has flourished in.

When Tchewa was ejected in Georgia’s road game at Florida State on Nov. 29, Anselem-Ibe came through with five points, three offensive rebounds and pair of free throws with 56 seconds remaining to put the Bulldogs ahead in what ended as a 68-66 victory.

With Tchewa in foul trouble on the road against South Carolina on Jan. 16, Anselem-Ibe came through again. In 14 minutes, then a season-high, he scored five points, had two blocks and five huge rebounds and made a critical three-point play in a stunning 74-69 upset.

Anselem-Ibe’s Ohio State performance was one for the ages. He was efficient on offense, making five of eight shots, but on defense he was altering shots, deflecting passes and forcing kick-outs when the Buckeyes tried to drive to the goal.

Anselem-Ibe’s double-double put him in some esteemed company when it comes to Georgia basketball history. Others who recorded double-doubles in the NIT include Dominique Wilkins, Terry Fair, Charles Claxton, Shandon Anderson, Jumaine Jones and Yante Maten.

Georgia tried to go to Tchewa in Columbus. But the big man could manage only five minutes and a single rebound in the first half and never returned to the floor.

“You know, honestly, if Frank didn’t play so well, I’m not sure we don’t throw Russ back out there,” White said. “But Frank was playing so well and impacting the game. I mean, 10 and 10, he’s altering and blocking, six offensive rebounds, extra possessions. Just that energy level he was bringing, our guys were feeding off of that.”

Indications are that Tchewa should be good to go in the next game. A full week later and not tipping off until well into the night, he should have had ample time to recover. Tchewa will go into that contest averaging 25.1 minutes per game – fourth-highest on the team – along with 7.6 points and 6.5 rebounds.

In all likelihood, then, Anselem-Ibe will be back in his role as “key reserve.” But he’ll do so with the full confidence of his teammates that he can get the job done for Georgia, whatever that may end up being.

“That’s what it’s about,” Thomasson said. “Frank’s playing his best basketball right now. Hopefully we’ll get Russ back for this game against Seton Hall because we’re really gonna need him. But I’m excited for Frank, and I want him to keep playing well. I also want Russ to get well, too, so we can change up our look from time-to-time, go with Frank, go with Russ, go with Jalen DeLoach. I like where we’re at right now.”

Said Anselem-Ibe: “It’s next man up, to be honest. With Russ or without Russ, at the end of the day, we’re a team. The team is not one individual. So, we just try to be there for each other and do what we have to do to get a ‘dub.’”