“The last thing I want to do right now is not coach this team,” Crean said.
That’s certainly understandable with Wheeler at the point. The 5-foot-10 sophomore guard, the smallest player in the SEC, continued to play the biggest in some of the biggest moments. Georgia trailed by 10 inside the final five minutes, then Wheeler took his team on his back.
His runner at 4:27 cut Missouri’s lead to eight. His assist on K.D. Johnson’s 3-pointer made it 66-61. His steal led to his two free throws to draw within three. Another Wheeler steal from Jeremiah Tilmon led to Toumani Camara’s fast-break lay-in and Georgia had suddenly closed it to 66-65 with 9-0 run with 3:09 still to go.
The Bulldogs had a chance extend it after Missouri’s Xavier Pinson missed a 3-pointer. But then the freshman Johnson took a wild, runner wide of the lane at the 2:26 mark. Then, with 1:56 remaining, Georgia’s Justin Kier fouled Pinson on a long, 3-point try at the end of the shot clock. The 83% foul shooter stepped up to make all three free throws at the 1:56 mark, and the Tigers had a 69-65 lead with 1:56 to play.
Again, Wheeler quickly drove the lane for another layup and Georgia was back within two. After Pinson’s offensive foul turned it over, Wheeler had a chance to tie the game, but his right-handed scoop was no good, and he saw too late that Camara was wide open on the other side of the basket.
Georgia got the ball back again on another Missouri turnover and Camara ended up at the foul line with a chance to tie the game with 19.8 seconds left. He made the free throw, but Kier was called for crossing the 3-point plane just before the shot, which meant a lane violation that took the point off the board. Camara missed the next one, and a great opportunity was wasted.
After Dru Smith’s free throws extended the lead four points again, Kier tried to make good with a 3-pointer, which went through with eight seconds remaining to get the Georgia back within one. The Bulldogs fouled immediately on the inbounds, but Missouri made both its foul shots again, leaving Georgia only 4.7 seconds to find a 3-point shot. It got one, but it didn’t fall.
“We fought back,” said Wheeler, who logged his eighth double-double of the season. “We got down 10 or 12 and earlier in the season we might’ve collapsed then. This time we came back around and we knew we were capable. They just made a few extra plays than us.”
Camara also recorded his eighth double-double – which ties for the league lead – and finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Johnson finished with 12 as the Bulldogs shot 43% from the field and 50% from 3-point range (8-of-16).
The difference was Georgia was 10-of-16 from the foul line and was out-rebounded 40-34.
Pinson led the Tigers with 17 points an Dru Smith and Kobe Brown added 16 each. The Bulldogs managed to hold 6-10, 260-pound forward Tilmon, who missed their first meeting, to 10 points and six rebounds.
Also hurting Georgia’s effort Thursday was losing Tye Fagan and Andrew Garcia to leg injuries on the same play with 11:27 to go. Garcia returned briefly from an ankle injury but Fagan had his right knee examined on the sideline and never returned.
If the season indeed ends, the 14-12 mark will be the first winning season under Crean and the seven SEC victories was also the best total of his three seasons.
Most of this team returns next season, and the Bulldogs’ three graduate transfers will have the option to come back as well.
But Crean wasn’t ready yet to talk about next year.
“I’m not there yet, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll do a postseason thing sometime when it’s the postseason for us. Just not right now.”