“I’m not sure I’ve got a great answer right now,” White said following the game. “Obviously, by our body language, by the way we shot it, our confidence or swagger or whatever you want to call it, we didn’t play the way we need to down the stretch. South Carolina is really good. Really, really good.”
Indeed. Picked to finish last in the SEC in their second season under coach Lamont Paris, the Gamecocks improved to 19-3 overall and are second in the league with a 6-2 record. Inexplicably left out of the human polls to date, another omission this week should bring with it a criminal offense. South Carolina will be favored in its next two, with Ole Miss and Vanderbilt going to Columbia next week.
For the Bulldogs, the last team to knock off the Gamecocks, 74-69 on Jan. 16, the season has gone in the opposite direction since that game. They’ve lost four of five since then. Early whispers of Georgia morphing into a tournament team have given way to legitimate concerns about whether it might win again. The next two and three of the next five are on the road for the Bulldogs.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of being better in the second half,” said senior forward Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who led the Bulldogs with 20 points. “That was the biggest problem. We came out and didn’t really guard them in the second half, or not like we did in the first half. They made some timely plays and had some timely rebounds that hurt us.”
What transpired wasn’t difficult to discern. After making eight 3-pointers in the first half, the Bulldogs made only one after halftime, and that came from Abdur-Rahim with just a minute to play and trailing by 12.
The Gamecocks made an adjustment at halftime and defended Georgia with a 1-3-1 zone in the second half. The result was the Bulldogs failing to even attempt a 3-pointer for the opening five minutes and then missing the next nine.
“They’d only played a few possessions of zone the entire season,” White said. “It was a very surprising move we didn’t anticipate seeing that much zone.”
Conversely, the Bulldogs had no answers for the Gamecocks’ bigs on the offensive end. Led by freshman forward Collin Murray-Boyles (16 points) and 7-foot senior Josh Gray (15), South Carolina outscored Georgia in the paint 40-24.
Conversely, Georgia post players Russel Tchewa, Frank Anselem-Ibe and Jalen DeLoach combined for five points on 2-of-6 shooting.
The Gamecocks shot 51.8% from the field and finished with 25 assists on 29 baskets with only nine turnovers. It was the third consecutive game that the Bulldogs’ opponent shot 50% or better from the field.
“I thought late game today, just like late game Tennessee (Jan. 13), late game Bama (Wednesday), we looked like we were carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. We don’t look the same. I’ve got to figure that out. I’ve got to help these guys.”
Georgia led 40-38 at halftime after building a 10-point lead at the 8:05 mark. Two points came on a fast-break dunk by RJ Melendez, but the majority of the Bulldogs’ points came from outside the arc.
Georgia made 7-of-11 3-pointers in the game’s first nine minutes, including three by freshman Blue Cain. He didn’t miss one until the 10:40 mark, and the Bulldogs led 23-16 at that point.
The problem was that while Georgia was living and dying behind the arc, South Carolina was feasting in the paint. The first six field goals by the Gamecocks were layups, including three dunks. They continued that trend until the 7:36 mark, when South Carolina’s Ta’Lon Cooper made his team’s first 3-pointer.
The visitors heated up from outside at that juncture and got within 29-28 on Morris Ugosuk’s 3-pointer at 6:14. A quick push got Georgia back up by seven. But the Gamecocks stole back all but two in the final few minutes as the teams exchanged 3-point misses before the halftime buzzer.
At halftime, Abdur-Rahim led Georgia with 11, and Collin Murray-Boyles had 10 for the Gamecocks.
Georgia remains only two wins shy of its total last season. But if postseason play is in the offing for the Bulldogs, they’ll need to execute a dramatic turnaround for their final nine regular-season games.
“Respond,” said guard Noah Thomasson, who needed 12 shots to score 10 points. “We’ve got to get back to work Monday and prepare for the next game. That’s all you can do. Work on the things we need to get better at.”