ATHENS – One key to becoming a tournament team is being able to win on an off night. Georgia did that Wednesday night, eking out a harder-than-hoped 68-66 win over LSU in Stegeman Coliseum.

The Bulldogs (14-5, 4-2 SEC) had center Russel Tchewa, primarily, to thank for the victory. His rebound and put-back of Jabri Abdur-Rahim’s missed 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left proved to be the game-winner. The 7-foot, 280-pound graduate transfer from South Florida was fouled on the play and made the free throw for the final margin. Tchewa finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

“It’s nice to see the big fella with a game-winner,” Georgia coach Mike White said. “The other guys have had their opportunities. He was coming off a game where he had nine seals (to get teammates’ baskets) at Kentucky. He was doing that again tonight. He’s really buying into helping his teammates.”

Georgia center Russel Tchewa (54) goes to the basket past LSU forward Hunter Dean (12) for the game-winning shot. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia needed everything Tchewa could offer as it was a night in which designated play-makers were struggling. Abdur-Rahim, the team’s leading scorer coming off a 34-point night against Kentucky at Rupp Arena, could manage only nine on his home court Wednesday. He was 2-of-10 from the field and 1-for-8 from 3-point range.

Likewise, second-leading scorer Noah Thomasson struggled with his shot. He managed 11 points but took 10 shots to get it. Senior guard Justin Hill managed only four points on 1-of-5 shooting. Included in that line was a missed layup from the right wing with 43 seconds remaining that could have spared some of the final-seconds drama. That miss led to a three-point play by LSU’s Jalen Cook that gave the Tigers their first lead since the eight-minute mark of the first half, 66-65, with 16 seconds to go.

“Obviously it was big; we won the game,” said Tchewa, in his deep Cameroon accent. “This is a good league. Sometimes it’s not going to be Jabri’s game, Noah’s game. Sometimes it’s not going to be Russel’s game. We don’t care who’s game it’s going to be. We just want to win.”

It would’ve been a shame for the Bulldogs to lose before another packed-in crowd at “The Steg.” Attendance was announced as 9,243 in the 10,000-seat arena. Georgia lost a similar knock-down, drag-out against No. 5 Tennessee before a sold-out crowd on Jan. 13. Student attendance in Georgia’s three SEC home games is at 132%, according to UGA.

Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart and his son Andrew (right) look at a phone during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Stegeman Coliseum, Wednesday, January 24, 2024, in Athens. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Tigers almost rendered moot Georgia’s final play. Amazingly, LSU’s Jordan Wright got off a clean 3-point shot from the corner at the final horn after fielding a full-court, in-bounds pass. His 3-point attempt bounced off the rim softly but fell away harmlessly after the buzzer.

“Scary,” White said. “One of the best passes I’ve ever seen.”

The Bulldogs are 3-0 in games decided by three points or fewer this season. They were 2-2 in such games last year. Georgia is 11-1 in Stegeman this season.

The majority of LSU’s points came from Wright (18) and Cook (21). The Tigers (11-8, 3-3) made 10 3-pointers in the game but only three in the second half.

Freshman guard Silas Demary led the Bulldogs with 15 points in 28 minutes, made his only 3-point attempt and all six foul shots. Georgia was 19-of-24 from the line to LSU’s 12-of-14. The Bulldogs had 18 turnovers. Once again their bench won the day, outscoring the opponent 22-14.

“The Steg was rocking tonight,” said Demary, who’s 25-of-29 from the foul line in the past three games and averaging 16.3 points in his last four. “When RJ (Melendez) had that dunk on them on that fast break, even I went crazy. Those moments bring energy to the whole team.”

Georgia missed an opportunity to distance itself from the Tigers in the first half. Despite shooting 52% from the field and 50% from 3-point range, the Bulldogs led only 35-33 at intermission.

Turnovers and defending the 3-point shot were the main culprit. Georgia had 10 first-half turnovers, several of them of the unforced variety. Meanwhile, LSU made seven of its 15 attempts from beyond the arc. Starting guards Cook, Wright and Mike Williams accounted for all of them.

The Bulldogs’ Abdur-Rahim, Thomasson and Melendez combined for just 11 points on a combined eight shots.

Similarly, Georgia struggled to shake its visitors in the second half. The Bulldogs got ahead by eight, 41-33, just four minutes in and twice more pulled ahead by six only to let the Tigers back in.

Georgia was still up 65-57 with 2:55 to play after Tchewa made a pair of free throws. But the Tigers wiped that out quickly. Trae Hannibal’s three-point play on a drive to the basket from the left wing made it a two-point game at the 2:06 mark.

After exchanging botched possessions, Cook drove the baseline from the right wing and converted a driving layup while drawing a foul from Tchewa. The free throw made it 66-65.

The Georgia crowd stood up when Abdur-Rahim found himself all alone at the top of the key for a 3-point shot. But the 43% long-range shooter clanged this shot, his seventh missed triple of the night. Tchewa went up high for the offensive board, pump-faked, then banked home a winning shot. The following foul shot was icing.

“We work on that every single day in practice,” Tchewa said. “Every time Jabri shoots, my job is to go get the rebound.”

That Tchewa got that one sets up a big game Saturday in White’s former hometown of Gainesville, Fla. The Bulldogs face Florida at noon at Exactech Arena. The Gators (13-6, 3-3) pulled out a 79-70 win over Mississippi State later Wednesday night.

“Ew, I’m not there yet,” White said when asked about that next game. “I’ve got a lot to learn about them the next couple of days. But I know they’re a tournament team.”

This year, maybe Georgia is too.

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