Georgia’s lopsided loss to Auburn spoils strong debut of K.D. Johnson

Credit: SEC

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The Tigers (7-7, 1-4 SEC) left Stegeman Coliseum Jan. 13, 2021, with their first SEC victory, 95-77, the Bulldogs (7-4, 0-4) remain winless in the league.

Credit: SEC

ATHENS — Tom Crean has a big problem.

Georgia’s third-year coach just saw his team get thoroughly dominated in every possible way at home by a young Auburn team that came in winless in conference play and led by a star freshman from this state. And while the Tigers (7-7, 1-4 SEC) left Stegeman Coliseum with their first SEC victory, 95-77, the Bulldogs (7-4, 0-4) remain winless in the league following their second consecutive conference humiliation.

It was the fourth loss in a row for Georgia, which must go on the road to face Ole Miss (6-5, 1-3) a week after a 30-point loss to Arkansas last Saturday.

The first postgame question Crean fielded asked how much responsibility he took for the Bulldogs’ poor SEC start.

“I guess all of it,” said Crean, who is 7-33 in SEC play as Georgia’s coach. “Is that what you’re asking me? I would say the entire thing. That would be the answer. I’m the coach.”

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Billed as a matchup of two fabulous freshmen who just gained their eligibility, the game didn’t disappoint in that regard. But Auburn’s Sharife Cooper got the edge in that battle as well. The 6-foot point guard from Marietta’s McEachern High, playing in his second collegiate game, led the Tigers with a double-double consisting of 28 points and 12 assists.

K.D. Johnson, playing his first game for the Bulldogs, held his own. The 6-1 guard from Hargrave Military Academy and Atlanta’s Southwest DeKalb High School led Georgia with 21 points on 9-of-19 shooting and added seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks in 30 minutes of play. Johnson also recorded 23 deflections.

The performance left Johnson feeling bittersweet. He’d been practicing with the Bulldogs but unable to play for the first month of the season due to an NCAA certification issue. He found out Monday he’d been cleared to play.

“I was pretty amped up before the game,” Johnson said. “I did OK. We didn’t get the win, so that was really all I was focused on. I wasn’t focused on me and my personal stats. I was focused on us getting our first ‘W’ in the SEC.”

His teammates were impressed.

“K.D.’s really good; you saw his impact,” sophomore guard Sahvir Wheeler said. “Twenty-three deflections in his first game is a crazy number. His activity on the ball, off the ball, on offense, on defense, he plays with juice, he plays with passion, and that’s something we definitely need.”

Johnson’s hustle wasn’t enough to overcome Georgia’s team deficiencies in so many areas. Namely defense.

Credit: SEC

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K.D. Johnson, playing his first game for the Bulldogs, led Georgia with 21 points and added 7 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks in 30 minutes of play.

Credit: SEC

Four days after Arkansas shot 52% against the Bulldogs, Auburn made 56.5% of its shots. And the vast majority of those were layups and dunks, not the 3-point shots the Tigers have become famous for under coach Bruce Pearl. Fifty-eight of Auburn’s points were scored in the paint, and half of those off fast breaks where it simply beat the Bulldogs down the floor. In addition to Cooper, Auburn had five other players in double figures, led by Devan Cambridge with 14.

Meanwhile, the Tigers blocked 14 of Georgia’s 67 shots. Cambridge and Jaylin Williams of Nahunta, Ga., had five each. And even when the Bulldogs weren’t being defended, they missed half of their 34 free throws.

But the ultimate difference for the Tigers was Cooper, who had 26 points and nine assists in his season debut against Alabama last Saturday.

“He was the best player on the floor,” Pearl said. “He’s hard to guard and makes what we do harder to guard.”

Amazingly, Georgia was actually competitive for brief periods. The Bulldogs sliced an 11-point halftime deficit to just four points with a 7-0 run to open the second half. But just as quickly, Auburn answered with a 16-3 run, feeding off four UGA turnovers in a three-minute span and turning three of those into 3-pointers. The Tigers were up 60-44 at that point.

Three different times after that the Auburn advantage would grow to 23 points. Georgia was never closer than 16 over the final 14 minutes of play.

Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs have much to work on before traveling to Oxford, Miss., this weekend. The Rebels, meanwhile, will have an extra day’s rest after playing Florida at home Tuesday night.

“We’re in a leadership vacuum right now,” Crean said, referring to players, not himself. “Fortunately, K.D. Johnson is playing now. We’ve got to shake it up because we’re not getting that leadership that brings people together and makes them feel they are going to win. I’ve got to look at who I’m playing and look at combinations, and I may have to make some tough choices.”