Georgia Bulldogs aim to finish strong vs. South Carolina

Georgia guard Silas Demary Jr. (4) drives against Alabama guard Aaron Estrada (55) during their game at Stegemen Coliseum, Wednesday, January 31, 2024, in Athens, Ga. Alabama won against Georgia 85-76. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Georgia guard Silas Demary Jr. (4) drives against Alabama guard Aaron Estrada (55) during their game at Stegemen Coliseum, Wednesday, January 31, 2024, in Athens, Ga. Alabama won against Georgia 85-76. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS — Finish. Pure and simple, Georgia must learn to finish strong in its tight SEC games.

When the Bulldogs face South Carolina at Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday (1 p.m., SEC Network), they will play their ninth SEC game of the season. That represents the halfway point of the conference schedule. So, Georgia’s fate is far from determined.

But if the Bulldogs are to reach any of their goals for this second season under coach Mike White, they’ll need to reverse the current trend of fading late in games.

That’s not all their games, mind you, just the ones they’ve led against ranked teams at home. Georgia actually has closed games quite well on the road. Ask the Gamecocks about that. But when it comes to running down those wins that lead the highlight shows, Georgia has found itself stumbling shy of the finish line.

“We’ve done that a couple times here this season,” White said after the 85-76 loss to No. 24 Alabama on Wednesday night. “We have to be better, obviously, playing with a lead at home.”

The challenge Saturday will be establishing a lead against South Carolina. The Gamecocks (18-3, 6-2 SEC) will arrive as the SEC’s hottest team. Georgia (14-7, 4-4) beat them 74-69 on Jan. 16 in Columbia, but South Carolina hasn’t lost since. The latest conquest was Tuesday night, when the Gamecocks knocked off No. 5 Tennessee 63-59 in Knoxville. They defeated No. 6 Kentucky a week before that.

“They’re a team that’s really hot, one of the hottest teams in the country,” Georgia guard Noah Thomasson said. “It’s another big-time opportunity for us.”

If the Bulldogs have demonstrated nothing else, it is that they can compete against any team in the conference. Even when they fell behind Kentucky by 28 points Jan. 20 at Rupp Arena, they outscored the Wildcats 28-9 in the final 7:55 to make the score respectable (105-96).

Since then, Georgia beat LSU and lost in overtime on the road to a Florida team that defeated Kentucky on Wednesday at Rupp. The scoring margin in the Bulldogs’ four conference losses has been a mere 7.5 points.

The difference in victory and defeat has come down to that final 6½ minutes of regulation. Tennessee outscored Georgia 21-4 in that span. Alabama’s margin was 29-13. Florida edged the Bulldogs by four in the five-minute overtime period.

“That’s the difference in us being 4-4 (in the SEC) and not 6-2,” Thomasson said. “We’ve just got to learn to keep playing and playing and not necessarily look at the score. We’ve got to keep doing the things that got us the lead in the first place.”

The deficiency that hurt Georgia in the Bama game was turnovers. The Bulldogs committed a season-high 19. That came four days after committing only nine on the road against Florida, only three of which came after the opening six minutes of play.

The Bulldogs also went cold offensively against the Crimson Tide. After making 7 of 13 3-point shots in the opening 20 minutes, Georgia was 0-for-4 from behind the arc after halftime. The Bulldogs were 1-of-10 from the field during the deciding stretch.

Getting outscored 58-35 in the second half by Bama underscores an obvious defensive shortcoming that materializes time-to-time for Georgia. Otherwise, it was a solid overall effort. The Bulldogs won the rebounding battle by 13 (39-26) and played the majority of the game with a high level of offensive efficiency.

“We’ve just got to be better at executing down the stretch,” freshman point guard Silas Demary Jr. said. “We turned the ball over a good amount in those (final) minutes. We converted at times, too, but we’ve just got to take better care of the ball and really finish these games in those late closes.”

There were no such breakdowns the last time Georgia met South Carolina. Playing the Gamecocks at Colonial Life Arena, the Bulldogs committed only eight turnovers, won the rebounding war there 45-36 and outscored them 41-35 in the second half. Carrying a modest lead into those final minutes, Georgia never flinched.

They’ll need to be similarly steely Saturday against a confident South Carolina team that will be supremely motivated to avenge its only loss in three weeks. In their second season under coach Lamont Paris, the Gamecocks were picked in the preseason by SEC coaches to finish last in the league. Instead, they sit in second place with a chance to make a run at the school’s first SEC championship since 1997.

“This league is ridiculous,” White said of the SEC’s overall strength. “Lamont has done an amazing job. No one thought they’d be as good as they are. … They’re really good, and they’re going to keep winning a bunch. They’re connected, they’re tough, they’re physical, they’re sound. We’ve got our hands full Saturday, but it’s a great opportunity for us.”

Georgia’s letdowns against Tennessee and Alabama certainly couldn’t be blamed on the atmosphere at “The Steg.” Wednesday night’s game was a solid sellout of 10,523, with the newly relocated student section creating an electrifying energy inside the refurbished 60-year-old arena. Saturday’s game also is a sellout.

But those big crowds have left disappointed twice now. Now 11-2 on their home floor, the Bulldogs have only five more home games remaining. They all happen to be against teams in the upper half of the league standings.

“We’ve got to take care of them on our home court,” said Thomasson, one of five double-figures scorers for the Bulldogs.

Said White: “These guys will keep fighting. I’m not worried about that at all.”

The key for the Bulldogs is to close hard. That’s whether they have a big lead, it’s tight or they’re trailing by double-digits.

“Our response has to be better down the stretch,” Demary said.

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