Georgia’s late rally falls short against No. 16 Tennessee

On the positive side, Georgia won the second half.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they count both halves and they could not overcome a horrific opening 20 minutes on the way to an 89-81 loss Wednesday night at Tennessee.

Behind by 18 points at halftime and 23 early in the second half, Georgia managed to fight its way back to within six points with a minute to play. But then K.D. Johnson, who scored 10 of his team-best 22 points in the final three minutes, missed a free throw, and a final turnover by guard Sahvir Wheeler with 25 seconds left ended any chance of an incredible comeback.

Instead, Georgia suffered its first loss in its last three games. The going only gets tougher now for the Bulldogs (12-7, 4-7 SEC) as No. 11 Alabama (16-5, 11-1) on the road and then No. 10 Missouri (13-3, 6-3) await next.

“I don’t ever get discouraged,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said. “I’m more of a realist. What do we have to do to get better?” Now we have to get ready for Alabama. But I’m not discouraged at all.”

If he’s looking for areas in which the Bulldogs could improve, the areas of turnovers and consistent defensive intensity over an entire game would be good places to start. Georgia trailed 44-26 at the half after shooting 34% with 11 turnovers while the Vols shot 55% and were 8-of-15 on 3-pointers.

“The sky’s not falling because we didn’t have it early,” Crean said. “But we have to play with force for 40 minutes, we have to play aggressive for 40 minutes,” Crean said. “It’s amazing, we were playing faster in the second half with less turnovers. That’s just what we have to do. Whether the offense is there or not, we have to play aggressively defensively.”

No. 16-ranked Tennessee (14-4, 7-4), the preseason pick to win the SEC, now is in a three-way tie for second. The Vols play at LSU (12-6, 7-4) on Saturday.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Johnson, a freshman from Atlanta, scored 20 of his 22 points in a second half in which Georgia outscored the Vols 55-45. Georgia also got 14 points and eight rebounds from Toumani Camara and Wheeler had 11 points and five assists – plus seven turnovers – before fouling out with 25 seconds to play. The Bulldogs had 18 turnovers.

Tennessee got 30 points from Jaden Springer.

The Bulldogs, playing at Thompson-Boling Arena for the first time in two years, started slowly. They turned the ball over, missed open shots, dribbled into traffic and were positively anemic on defense.

After Georgia’s Justin Kier scored the game’s first basket on a layup 12 seconds in, Tennessee made its first 3 of the night and led the rest of the way. The Bulldogs scored four points on one field goal and two free throws over a span of 6:09 in middle of the first half to fall behind by double digits.

Tennessee would push its lead to 18 points and had a chance to expand it from there with a steal on Georgia’s last possession of the half. The Bulldogs trailed 44-26 at the break with Camara and Jaxson Etter as the leading scorers with just five points apiece.

Tennessee would quickly push the lead to 23 points early in the second half. To Georgia’s credit, it continued to compete. The Vols had to call a timeout at the 7:45 mark to stop a 9-0 Bulldogs run that got them within 13.

Georgia would get to within 10 at the 6:20 mark and could’ve been closer if not for a point-blank miss by Johnson on a fast-break layup. Johnson made up for it with two steals, two fast-break layups, an offensive put-back and a free throw in the span of 43 seconds from 1:20 to 0:37. Johnson would get three more on a three-point play with 20 seconds remaining.

“We’re certainly better when K.D. plays like he played in the second half,” Crean said.

But the Bulldogs failed to execute stops on Tennessee’s last three possessions, so the margin stayed where it was.

“We’ve got to understand that we’ve got to bring that same type of aggressiveness physically and verbally in the first half,” Crean said. “That’s what we’ve done when we’ve been successful.”