Georgia basketball seeks two solid halves vs. LSU

Georgia Bulldogs point guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) drives the ball against the Florida Gators during last Saturday's 70-63 loss at Exactech Arenain Gainesville, Fla. Wheeler scored a game-high 27 points in the contest.
Georgia Bulldogs point guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) drives the ball against the Florida Gators during last Saturday's 70-63 loss at Exactech Arenain Gainesville, Fla. Wheeler scored a game-high 27 points in the contest.

Credit: Matt Pendleton/Special to the Sun

Credit: Matt Pendleton/Special to the Sun

ATHENS – When Tom Crean dreams, he must see visions of Georgia’s basketball team winning the opening tip and immediately going on an extended run. The next thing he might envision is the Bulldogs jogging to their locker room underneath a scoreboard that shows them with a halftime lead.

If such a dream were to have been a reality at any point during February, the Bulldogs might not have more than a single loss this month. As it is, they’ve lost three of the last four heading into Tuesday night’s matchup against LSU at Stegman Coliseum (7 p.m., SECN).

In three of the last four games – never mind the 115-82 nightmare at Alabama, for nothing could have saved Georgia from that – the Bulldogs won the second half going away. Georgia outscored Tennessee, Missouri and Florida by a combined 142-111 after halftime, or an average score of 47.3 to 37.0.

But the Bulldogs have but one win to show for it. Georgia trailed Missouri by four points at halftime (13 early in the second half) but rallied to win by 10, 80-70, thanks to a 47-33 second half.

However, the Bulldogs could not overcome 14-point halftime deficits to Florida and Tennessee, even though they outscored those teams 40-33 and 55-45, respectively, the rest of the way. The hole they’d dug was simply too deep.

“We’ve had conversations about it,” Georgia senior guard Justin Kier said. “We fight so hard to come back in the second half and I believe those are games we can win if we don’t get down by so much in the first half. So, yeah, Coach has talked about it and us as players have talked about it. Digging that deep of a hole you can’t always come back from it.”

Of course, not getting so far behind encompasses a lot of factors. Sometimes it has been Georgia turning the ball over, other times it has been not being able to make open shots and still others it has been not playing with the defensive intensity required to stress the opponent.

Georgia has broken it down every way possible without finding a clear culprit.

“It’s been kind of toward the middle of the first half where we’ve had a little drought,” Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler said. “We’ve had some really good starts, but we’ve kind of get a little stagnant and that’s something we’ve been working on in practice. We’ve had some really good second halves, so we’ve taken the high points of those second halves and emphasized them in practice.

“We’re getting better, but to make it equate to winning games we’ve got to actually put it together into a full 40 minutes of basketball.”

Desperation seems to be common denominator in the Bulldogs’ torrid second halves. This past Saturday’s loss to Florida in Gainesville was the perfect example. Georgia got wide open outside shots against the Gators but simply was missing them.

To their credit, the Bulldogs never quit. After finding themselves trailing by 15 with only 3:57 to play, Georgia sliced the margin all the way down to five with 27 seconds still to go. In that span, the Bulldogs forced four turnovers and made every shot into the final minute.

Crean was asked if he needed his squad to play with similar desperation in the opening minutes.

“Obviously, when we’ve played well we’ve been able to string stops together but we’ve also scored at a pretty good clip and our shooting has been pretty good,” the Bulldogs’ coach said. “… the last thing you want to do is put more pressure on them. You want to make sure they’re better decision-makers and they understand what we’re trying to get. You have to coach them to do that. But you don’t want to coach them with a level of pressure that makes that even tougher.”

Georgia (13-9, 6-9 SEC) knows it’s probably going to have to score a lot of points against LSU. The Tigers (14-6, 9-4) lead the SEC with an 83.1 points per game average, including a league-leading 22.8 from freshman guard Cameron Thomas.

The Bulldogs already showed they could hang with LSU when they played in Baton Rouge on Jan. 6. The game went to overtime before the Tigers finally prevailed 94-92, and that was only after an egregious missed call by officials. The refs failed to award Georgia with the ball trailing by two at its end of the floor after Justin Kier threw a loose ball off an LSU player. Inexplicably, the Tigers retained possession of the ball. Thomas finished with 26 points in that game while Kier had 25.

“We’re such a different team and I’m sure they are, too,” Crean said. “It’s much more about where they’re at right now and what we’re coming off of from our games last week.”

One key difference is Georgia now has freshman K.D. Johnson, who wasn’t yet eligible when the Bulldogs went to Baton Rouge. The 6-foot-1 guard, who was Thomas’ teammate at Oak Hill Academy last year, has played in 12 games now and is UGA’s second-leading scorer at 13.3 points a game.

Meanwhile, LSU has won three in a row over Mississippi State, Tennessee and Auburn and is playing for seeding in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Conversely, The Bulldogs have lost three of four and are in a do-or-die situation with regard to the postseason. They simply can’t drop another one of these last three regular-season games against LSU, South Carolina or Texas A&M and give any serious thought to playing beyond the SEC Tournament in Nashville March 10-14.

Maybe, then, an air of desperation is exactly what Georgia needs. Maybe the Bulldogs can play the opening 10 or 12 minutes with the same intensity they’ve been playing the last 10 or 12 the last couple of weeks. Maybe, then, Crean’s dream of his team not falling way behind and putting together two solid halves together can become a reality.

“We’ve got to get off to a good start,” Kier said. “And if we get down six or 10, we’ve got to cap it and come back instead of digging that big hole.”

Said Crean: “We’ve just got to find ways within the game when you’re down or when you’re up to continue to play to win, not to lose, and understand just how lond the game is and how important every possession is.”

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