But UGA’s Sahvir Wheeler responded by driving the lane, getting fouled and making both free throws to push the lead back to three with 1:02 to play. Ole Miss turned the ball over when Jarkel Joiner stepped on the end line, then Wheeler was fouled on the drive again. He made both free throws again to push the lead to 77-72 with 18 seconds to play.
The Bulldogs sensed the moment there.
“The fact that we were 0-4 in conference play was the biggest motivation for me,” said Georgia junior Tye Fagan, who finished with a team-high 19 points on 9-for-9 shooting. “If you claim to be a winner, losing games should motivate you more than anything.”
Free-throw shooting – and shooting of all types – was the difference in this game and the four in a row Georgia had lost. After making only 17 of 34 foul shots against Auburn on Wednesday, Georgia made 15 of 17 on Saturday. The Bulldogs also shot 60 percent from 3-point range (9-of-15) and 58.7 from the field.
Fagan proved to be a big difference-maker in that regard. His ability to cut inside of Ole Miss’s zone sparked Georgia’s early second-half run.
“He did a better job than we could’ve imagined against their zone,” Crean said of Fagan. “He allowed us to attack the 1-3-1 a little differently.”
Wheeler added 18 points and nine assists while going 4-for-4 from the line and 2-for-2 from 3-point range. Freshman K.D. Johnson came off the bench to score 14, including two 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions inside the final five minutes.
Shuler led the Rebels (6-6, 1-4) with 24 points, and Joiner added 22. While Ole Miss shot 50.8 percent from the field, it was 5-of-15 from the free-throw line.
It looked for a while like Georgia might run away with it. The Bulldogs surged ahead 53-38 when Toumani Camara made one of two free throws with 12:02 to play. That’s when Crean decided to sub for Fagan, who had scored Georgia’s previous 10 points on five consecutive layups.
Ole Miss responded immediately with an 8-0 run and would continuously chip away at the Bulldogs’ lead over the next six minutes. The Rebels were within six at 65-59 with a chance to cut it further when Johnson stole the ball in the final seconds of an Ole Miss possession.
On the other end, the 6-foot-1 freshman fielded a kick-out pass from Fagan and buried a deep 3 from left of the basket to push the lead back to nine. Thirty-five seconds later, Johnson caught another kick-out from Wheeler and made another 3 for a 71-50 advantage with 4:30 to play.
“He did a fantastic job. It’s just going to take us a little bit to get used to playing with him,” Crean said of Johnson. “But (his shooting range) gives us more space to play. If we can continue to open up space like that, we can play with anybody.”
But inside the last three minutes, Ole Miss put together a 7-0 run in 59 seconds. Then, after Johnson air-balled a 3-point attempt, Shuler was fouled on a fast break the other way and made both free throws to make the score 73-72 with 1:27 to play.
It was all Wheeler from there, controlling the ball, getting to the line and making all four of his free throws to ice the game.
“I kept telling him, ‘Just gimme one, gimme one,’” Fagan said. “And he just made all of them. I said, ‘Ice in the veins, boy.’ Those were big shots.”
With an 11 a.m. local tip time, the Bulldogs were back in Athens by late afternoon. They arrived excited and eager to play back-to-back home games for the first time in 2021. But they’ll come against Kentucky and Florida on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively.
“I feel like they grew up over the last couple of days,” Crean said of his team, which features eight newcomers. “I think K.D. has helped is with our confidence, and I think the players feel better with him out there. And they responded. We went back to work on what was causes us to lose, and that’s what we could control.”