Georgia focused on defense as it takes on No. 4 Tennessee

ATHENS — When it comes to playing defense, Georgia is exponentially better than it was a year ago. But it is defense that has betrayed the Bulldogs lately.

Georgia gave up 85 points each against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. The result was the first two-game losing streak of the season.

The Bulldogs (13-6, 3-3 SEC) have worked hard to shore that up before Wednesday night’s game against No. 4 Tennessee in Knoxville. The Volunteers (16-3, 6-1) average 74.1 points a game and have been winning by an average margin of 19.9 points.

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“We’ve had the fight brought to us,” Georgia coach Mike White said of the past two outings. “We haven’t matched that level of intensity that you need to match in this league to be successful.”

The frustration is the Bulldogs’ ability to defend has been the primary reason they’ve already more than doubled their win total from last season. A year after ranking No. 338 nationally in both scoring defense (78.5 ppg) and field-goal defense (.473) and No. 260 in 3-point field-goal defense (.439), the Bulldogs are No. 83 in scoring defense (66.1 ppg), No. 78 in opponent FG percentage (.441) and No. 14 in opponent 3-point percentage (.288) this season.

And that’s after giving up 170 in losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

The real stinger was falling to the Commodores 85-82 before a sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday.

Georgia led Kentucky by 11 points in the first half and eight at halftime in Lexington before getting manhandled by Oscar Tshiebwe in the second half of what ended in a 14-point defeat.

That followed a week in which the Bulldogs kept Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the 50s on the way to consecutive victories.

“As a team, we definitely took a step back,” center Frank Anselem said. “I don’t know why. Maybe we players got too comfortable, got it into our heads that we could beat Vanderbilt. Just got a little bit too comfortable and they came in here and beat us. In the SEC, if you relax you are going to get beat. We feel like as a team and program we can’t let that happen again.”

Tennessee is a tough opponent against which to get well. The Vols are the epitome of offensive efficiency, with all five starters averaging double figures in scoring and exceptional size up and down the bench.

Making it all go is sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler. He’s averaging 7.3 assists in SEC play and is coming off a 12-point, 10-assist performance in Saturday’s 77-56 road win over LSU. White called Zeigler “one of the better point guards in college basketball.”

“We better be on it defensively,” White said. “It has got to be one of our better performances, if not our best, just to have a chance to be within striking distance.”

Georgia has a strong counter in its own point guard, Terry Roberts. In SEC play, Roberts’ scoring average has jumped more than five points per game to 19.5, which ranks second in the SEC.

Roberts has produced team highs of 14 double-figure and five 20-point scoring outputs this season. Of those, six double-digit and three 20-point performances have come in six SEC contests.

White said the team’s attitude and effort in practice has been good. The Bulldogs recognize where and how they need to shore up. Now they just have to put it in action under the lights.

“We have a really good group of guys who owned it,” White said. “All of us owned it. We just have to be better. If we are not markedly better (versus Tennessee), it will be ugly. … But I anticipate our effort being really good.”

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