Georgia Bulldogs beat Ohio State, advance to NIT Final Four

Georgia coach Mike White has had plenty of reasons to smile in the NIT.  (Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia coach Mike White has had plenty of reasons to smile in the NIT. (Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATHENS – Still dancing. Never mind what floor it’s on.

That’s the attitude of the Georgia Bulldogs, who notched yet another road win on Tuesday to defeat Ohio State 79-77 and advance to the NIT Final Four. The Bulldogs (20-16) will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between Seton Hall and UNLV on April 2 at Butler University’s Hinkle Field House in Indianapolis.

Not even sure that they’d make college basketball’s second-tier tournament, the Bulldogs have navigated through arguably the toughest bracket in the tournament by conquering Xavier, Wake Forest and Ohio State on the way to the semifinals. Tuesday night’s win over the Buckeyes, played before a raucous, near-capacity crowd in 19,000-seat Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio, was the toughest of all.

The Bulldogs withstood a furious 17-0 run that resulted in a 70-64 Ohio State lead inside the game’s final five minutes. But then Georgia wiped out the deficit with back-to-back 3s from Blue Cain and Noah Thomasson, and the freshman and graduate added back-to-back, victory-defining plays in the last 36 seconds to bring the victory home after four nights on the road.

“Unique team, to say the least,” Georgia second-year coach Mike White said via video conference call from the Bulldogs’ victorious locker room. “We’re a resilient team, a consistent team. I’m really proud of these guys. A really tough environment the other day, an even tougher environment tonight.”

The Bulldogs flew directly to Columbus from Winston-Salem, N.C, after having to change hotels on Sunday due to a power outage. Tuesday night, they played again with two starters sidelined and star center Russ Tchewa still so sick he could manage only five first-half minutes and finished with one rebound.

No problem. Backup center Frank Anselem-Ibe answered the bell by playing 28 minutes and recording 10 points and 10 rebounds. Georgia’s bench once again outscored the opponent, this time 22-17.

But it was Thomasson and Cain who truly frustrated the Buckeyes, especially down the stretch of a game in which the home team seemed to have seized total control. Trailing by one with 36 seconds to play, Thomasson dribbled inside the arc and put one of his classic shimmy moves on his 6-foot-6 freshman defender Devin Royal. The left-hander faked to his right and stepped back to the left, unleashing a high-arcing 17-foot jump shot that swished the net.

Now armed with a one-point advantage, 77-76, Georgia forced Ohio State’s Jamison Battle into a contested 3-pointer. The Buckeyes’ leading scorer with 22 points, 12 of them coming on 3-pointers, missed this one. Cain snatched the rebound – one of his eight in the game – and was fouled in less than a second.

A 62.5% foul shooter on only 24 attempts all season, Cain stepped to the line and made them both for a 79-76 lead. He’d finish with a career-high 17 points, second only to Thomasson’s 21.

And that would prove to be all Georgia needed. Ohio State’s Bruce Thornton missed a second free throw attempt with 19 seconds to go and then a 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds to play before the Buckeyes’ final attempt clanked off the rim at the final horn.

“I’ve been in these situations before,” said Thomasson, a graduate transfer from Houston by way of Niagara Falls. “That’s why coach White brought me here. At Niagara, I scored countless buckets in late situations. You just keep shooting.”

It was Georgia’s 18th one-possession game in the final five minutes and 13th in the last 30 seconds. The Bulldogs improve to 10-8 and 8-5, respectively, in those contests.

Thomasson and Cain weren’t the only heroes. Anselem-Ibe’s double-double in relief of Tchewa was the second time this season his play helped lift the Bulldogs to victory. He came through similarly in a road win over a top-25 South Carolina team earlier this season. Freshman Dylan James had only five points but made another huge 3-pointer with 2:23 to play to keep the Bulldogs in striking distance. James DeLoach was a perfect 3-for-3 off the bench, point guard Silas Demary grabbed six rebounds and RJ Melendez scored seven points in only 12 minutes of play, adding a steal and dunk and deflecting at least two other Ohio State passes.

All their contributions were key as former starters Jabri Abdur-Rahim (ankle) and RJ Sunahara (knee) once again sat out with injuries.

“As a team, we play really hard and everyone is there for each other,” said Anselem-Ibe, whose career scoring high is 12 points. “It’s next man up, to be honest. The challenge was there and we knew what we faced. The coaches did a great job of telling us the scouting report, how to guard them, and we just did it.”

They did, and they’re in the Final Four as a result. And don’t come at the Bulldogs with, “Ah, it’s just the NIT.”

“It’s really big; we don’t take this lightly,” White said. “We were picked near the bottom (of the SEC), but we have higher expectations and standards within our program. If we finish a few of those close ones a little better, we could potentially be in that other tournament. But I love the character our guys are showing. They’re playing with gratitude, playing with appreciation for the opportunity and taking advantage. That’s huge.”