“That’s the loudest as I’ve heard the Steg, when we had Tennessee on the ropes right there,” said Georgia coach Mike White, in his second season with the Bulldogs. “I certainly hope it’s that loud (Wednesday) night.”
It might be. UGA has been offering discounted tickets to the general public and free admission to students for Wednesday night’s home game against LSU. The Tigers (11-7, 3-2 SEC), like seemingly everybody in the SEC, are another tall, athletic, skilled basketball team with postseason aspirations and the ability to knock off anybody on any given night.
But if the Bulldogs are to do what they set out to do this season, they desperately need to take care of business on their home court. They did not that night against the Vols. Georgia was outscored 21-4 from the moment Cain’s 3 passed through the net until the final buzzer. Tennessee won 85-79, which stands as the Bulldogs’ only home loss this season.
The Vols – arguably the best team in the SEC this season – deserve credit for that. But if Georgia is to make its way into postseason play, it absolutely has to defend its home court the rest of the way.
That won’t be easy. After LSU, the Bulldogs still have Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and Ole Miss on the home docket. At this point, every one of them is considered postseason contender.
For that reason, Georgia is counting on the Stegeman crowd to be its sixth man.
“We know this is our place,” center Russel Tchewa said before the Bulldogs’ Tuesday afternoon practice at the Stegeman Training Center. “This is where we practice every day. In this league, if you defend your home court, you know you have a chance. So, it’s really, really important to win at home.”
Said junior RJ Melendez: “It’s amazing what ‘Dog Nation’ can do in here. The amount of noise they can generate in this gym messes with the opponents’ mindset. Whenever we’re on a run in here, it gets really loud in here, and it’s a really big advantage for us.”
Melendez should know. He came to Georgia from Illinois and the Big Ten, which is known for its boisterous, packed-to-capacity arenas. He called Purdue’s Mackey Arena one of the loudest he’d played in previously.
But he has learned the SEC can be pretty thunderous as well. The Bulldogs just came from Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, where they fell behind by 28 before rallying at the end of what resulted in a 105-96 loss.
Georgia also has been to Missouri and South Carolina this season, winning both of those games. With a 68-66 win over Florida State in Tallahassee on Nov. 29, the Bulldogs were 3-0 in true road games before losing to the Wildcats.
“Rupp Arena was pretty loud,” Melendez said. “But we’ve been able to handle the (road environments) and stay together every single time. Every timeout, we’re calm and talking, and you can see how connected we are.”
The loss to Tennessee aside, Georgia actually has been extremely good at home under White. The Bulldogs are 10-1 at “The Steg” this season and 23-5 there in White’s season and a half with the program.
The fact is, White deserves a lot of credit for the atmosphere that Georgia has created on its home floor this season. It was his idea to implement a couple of key changes that have helped transform the environment.
First, White asked UGA’s administration if it could flip the home bench to the other end of the floor. For one thing, that puts the visiting team in front of the goal on the east of the court, where the seats are occupied by Georgia students.
Second, it was White’s idea to move the rest of the student section into the lower-level seats opposite the benches. That meant displacing a large segment of longtime basketball donors and school faculty, which had occupied those spaces for decades.
“I suggested it, but credit goes to Jere (Morehead, UGA president) and Josh (Brooks, athletic director) and his administration for being open to it and making it happen,” White said Tuesday. “And also to the openness for some of our fans, who had to move seats. Not everyone was super-excited on the front end. But hopefully, as we build this thing, we’ll do our part, and all of our fans will look back and say, ‘that was a good decision.’”
As it is, Georgia has to overcome its reputation as a place where visiting teams can steal a road win. That hasn’t been an easy thing for LSU of late. Though the Tigers are 23-29 at Stegeman all time, Georgia is 15-4 against them in Athens since 1990, when the Bulldogs defeated Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Jackson 94-92 in overtime to clinch its only SEC regular-season championship in history. Georgia beat LSU 65-63 last year in Athens. The Tigers’ last win in the Steg was 83-79 in 2019.
LSU typically is hard to handle in its second season under coach Matt McMahon. They’re led by guards Jordan Wright (15.3 ppg) and Jalen Cook (14.9) but also rely on 7-foot, 245-pound Will Baker (11.4, 5.4 rpg). This will be their fourth road game of the season. They’re 1-2, with a win at Texas A&M and losses at Syracuse and Auburn.
“They’re playing really, really well,” White said. “They could easily be sitting here with four (SEC) wins. They have a top-50 defense, and they’re very dangerous offensively as well.”
So is Georgia. The Bulldogs are deeper than most teams. They entered the week ranked No. 19 nationally in bench points, at 28.5 ppg. Reserves have won the bench-point battle in 16 of 18 games, sporting a scoring margin of plus-237, or 13.2 ppg.
White said he’s been pleased with the Bulldogs’ attitude coming off the loss the Kentucky. Georgia actually outscored the Wildcats 61-51 in the second half.
“We finished really strong, and that in-game response I think was appropriate as you look at the big picture with our team,” White said. “We’ve responded after every loss the right way.”