Georgia Bulldogs seek answers on road vs. Mississippi State

ATHENS — The desperation was apparent in coach Mike White’s voice. After watching his team let yet another second-half lead slip away in a loss to South Carolina on Saturday, Georgia’s second-year basketball coach was at his wit’s end.

“We look like the weight of the world’s on our shoulders,” White said following that 72-62 defeat. “We don’t look the same, and I’ve got to figure that out. I’ve got to help these guys because if you play to your identity, if you play to the way you played the first 15 minutes of the game for 40 (minutes), better things are going to happen, right?”

They need to as the Bulldogs are trying to pull out of a tailspin. Losers of three consecutive and five of its past seven, Georgia (14-8, 4-5 SEC) heads back out on the road to face a Mississippi State team in very much the same situation.

The “Bizzarro Bulldogs,” as Georgia fans like to call their SEC brother with the same nickname, were throttled by Alabama 99-67 on Saturday in Tuscaloosa to fall to 14-8 (3-6). That same Crimson Tide team came from behind to beat Georgia after trailing by 14 at halftime.

That means the Bulldogs have been outscored 92-57 in the second half by opponents in the past two games. And those were at home. Wednesday’s tilt is at Mississippi State’s Humphrey Coliseum and doesn’t tip off until 9 p.m. (SEC Network).

Like most SEC teams, State is an entirely different team on its home floor. They’re 8-2 at “The Hump” with wins over No. 5 Tennessee (77-72 on Jan. 10) and No. 8 Auburn (64-58 on Jan. 27).

For Georgia, Wednesday’s game is the first of nine remaining in the regular season, only four of which are home. The Bulldogs travel to Arkansas on Saturday (6 p.m., SEC Network) before having a week off before hosting Florida on Feb. 17 at Stegeman Coliseum.

As ever, SEC basketball is a grind. But, at this point, Georgia needs it to sharpen them as opposed to further wear them down.

“We’re learning a lot about ourselves,” said Noah Thomasson, a graduate-transfer guard and Georgia’s second-leading scorer (12 ppg). “The results haven’t gone in our favor, but we’re still doing a lot of really good things. We just have to clean up some of the things we’re not doing well, and a lot of these (games) will turn out different.”

He’s not wrong. The Bulldogs are doing some things very well. That’s why they’ve been able to carry late leads into games against Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina and significantly outscored Kentucky and Florida in the second half of losing efforts.

It was more of the same in the last outing. Georgia lit up the Gamecocks with 3-point shooting to establish a 10-point lead 12 minutes into the game only to go cold the rest of the way and get overpowered in the second half.

The Bulldogs blamed that on South Carolina switching to a zone defense. But Georgia has faced zones before this season and its offense didn’t go flying off the tracks. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks never stopped hammering the Bulldogs inside for high-percentage shots near the basket.

Georgia can expect the same treatment from its Wednesday-night host. State is led by 6-foot-11, 245-pound forward Tolu Smith III, who averages 16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds. Projected by SEC coaches in the preseason as the league’s player of the year, Smith missed the first dozen games of the season, but has come back strong. Smith is joined in the paint by 6-7 forward Cameron Matthews (9.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg), and guard Josh Hubbard ranks No. 2 among SEC freshmen with a 14.8 scoring average.

Russel Tchewa (7-0, 280), Frank Ansalem-Ibe (6-10, 215) and Jalen DeLoach (6-9, 220) represent Georgia’s collective presence in the paint and average 13.6 and 12.2 among them. They’ll have to perform at a higher level Wednesday for the Bulldogs have a chance.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of being more physical,” said Georgia’s leading scorer, senior forward Jabri Abdur-Rahim. “We’ve lacked a little physicality lately, especially in the paint.”

As for the tale-of-two-halves quandary, White has tried many things. Last week, he shook up the starting lineup. On Saturday, the Bulldogs changed their halftime routine.

“It’s trial and error, right?” White said. “We’ve just got to re-evaluate and figure out what our best chance is. We get nine more, and then we’ve got an SEC Tournament, and we’ll see where it goes. In this league in 2024, we’ve got a bunch of great opportunities. Every night’s a great opportunity.”