Despite 35 points from RJ Melendez, Georgia falls to Florida in overtime

Stegeman Coliseum at the University of Georgia.

Stegeman Coliseum at the University of Georgia.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike White uses the term resilient all the time to describe his second Georgia basketball team. On Saturday versus Florida, the Bulldogs showed why.

No, they didn’t win. But Georgia almost did, wiping out a 21-point, second-half deficit to tie the score at 85-85 in regulation before falling 102-98 in overtime. The Bulldogs got a career-best 35 points from RJ Melendez, who led a Georgia bench that outscored Florida’s 62-15. Freshman Blue Cain added 14, and Russel Tchewa had his second consecutive double-double game, with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. The Gators, in firm control until the final 12 minutes of regulation, outscored Georgia 17-13 in the five-minute overtime period to the secure the victory.

“Florida was really good throughout, especially in overtime,” said White, who coached the Gators for seven years before coming to Georgia in 2022. “They made some big, timely baskets in overtime, similar to the first 40 (minutes).”

Florida improves to 14-6 overall and 4-3 in SEC play, and the Bulldogs leave with that record, too. It was Georgia’s ninth loss in a row to the Gators. The rival programs will meet again Feb. 17 at Stegeman Coliseum.

The key, White said afterward, is not getting so far behind in the first place.

“Yeah, we got a little rattled early, which is uncharacteristic of us,” White said. “But I also thought Florida was really good defensively early and set a tone. That’s what put us down as much as we were. But our fight in the last 10 minutes or so was high level and gave us a chance.”

We’ve seen this before from the Bulldogs. They fell behind by 17 points against Florida State in November and 28 to Kentucky a week ago. Georgia rallied in both those games, beating the Seminoles and losing to the Wildcats by nine.

This time, Georgia had victory in hand during regulation. Thanks to a steal by senior guard Justin Hill with 26 seconds remaining, the Bulldogs had the ball with the score tied and a chance to win on a final shot. But Hill lost the handle on his dribble as he got ready to cut toward the basket. Florida’s Will Richard came up with the ball and was credited with a steal with three seconds to go, but the Gators were unable to get off a shot before time expired.

The overtime period could not have started better for the Bulldogs. Melendez came up with a steal and fed Cain for a wide-open 3-point shot in the right corner. He missed. Florida’s Zyon Pullin then executed a traditional three-point play on the other end for an 88-85 lead.

The teams then traded two-point baskets when Cain found himself open again, this time from the left corner. He missed again. When Pullin made a short pull-up jumper, the Gators had a 94-89 lead and that was all the margin they needed to start working the clock.

On the ensuing possession, Hill was dribbling across the lane again when he rolled his right ankle. With Hill writhing on the court, the Bulldogs were assessed a shot-clock violation and the ball went back to Florida.

Already playing without starter Silas Demary Jr., who fouled out at the 13:22 mark of the second half, the Bulldogs were out of point guards. Shooting guard Noah Thomasson took over but missed another 3-point attempt at the 1:29 mark. Richard made it a seven-point Florida advantage, and that proved too much for the Bulldogs to overcome.

Melendez kept it close. He got a steal and made another 3 with 6.5 seconds remaining to put one more scare into the Gators’ capacity crowd. But Pullin made both free throws after Georgia fouled him at the 5.7-second mark, and Georgia never got off another shot.

“We’ve been in this position before,” said Tchewa, who made seven of eight shots while playing 33 minutes. “We just have to do a better job of not getting down like that and try to come back all the time. We can’t let that happen all the time.”

Said Melendez: “We never had a thought that we were not in the game. We knew we had a lot of time. We’re a connected team that plays really hard and can disrupt any team we play.”

Two issues ultimately tripped up the Bulldogs on Saturday. They were out-rebounded 48-27 and Florida posted 12 second-chance points compared to Georgia’s 3. Also, normally one of the better foul shooting teams in the SEC, the Bulldogs were 9-of-17 from the line against Florida, which made 17-of-20.

Melendez and Cain were the headline grabbers for the Bulldogs. The career-scoring high for Melendez, a 6-foot-7 junior transfer, were 17 at Illinois and 18 for Georgia earlier this season. He equaled those two combined in this game, shooting 13-of-19 overall, 6-of-10 from 3-point range and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line. He had 13 points at halftime and missed his first two 3′s.

“I just let the game come to me,” Melendez said. “I know I’m a good shooter, so I kept shooting the ball. They started going in, we got into rhythm and we started getting stops and coming back. I was just able to sustain in the flow of the game and coach kept running good plays and getting me open.”

It was the first double-figures scoring game in SEC play for Cain, a freshman from Knoxville. He made two 3-pointers in regulation and finished with 14 points in 34 minutes.

Cain and Melendez have been in reserve roles for most of the season. Saturday was the 18th time in 20 games the Bulldogs’ bench outscored their opponents’.

“We’ve said it all year; we’ve just got a lot of parity on our team,” White said. “We’re an interesting and unique team where we have several guys who have unique skill sets and can do it in different ways. Finding the ones that complement each other on any given night has been interesting.”

The Bulldogs clearly were out of sorts in the opening minutes of the game, briefly regained their footing midway through the first half, then were simply overwhelmed under a barrage of 3-points and fast-break opportunities by the Gators until well into the second half. Up by 13 at the half, the Gators built a colossal 21-point lead, 62-41, on freshman Alex Condon’s hook shot at the 14:56 mark. The Bulldogs looked to be down for the count when Demary fouled out 1½ minutes later.

But that’s when Georgia started to chip away. The Bulldogs got it down to 11 just four minutes later. Then a curious thing happened.

A Florida basket was waved off because of a basket-interference ruling. About 90 seconds later, though, at the 7:47 media timeout, officials reviewed and then overruled that call. Two points were added and now Georgia trailed 75-61. Those two points would loom large as the Bulldogs would outscore Florida 22-8 over the final 7:12 of regulation.

Georgia was victimized by a similar missed call on its first possession of the game, but the play wasn’t reviewed.

“They can go back and review it, but a whistle wasn’t blown when ours happened,” White said after the game. “I don’t want to comment on officiating, but that’s what I was told by the officials. If the whistle doesn’t blow, they can’t review it.”

It was tough to lose what could have been a Quad 1 victory for the Bulldogs. Instead, they head back home to prepare to play host to Alabama. The Crimson Tide (14-6, 6-1) moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC with a 109-88 win over LSU (11-9, 3-4) late Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.

Georgia would be well-advised not to fall behind by double-digits in that one. Then again, it seems the Bulldogs can never be counted out.

“We’ve just got to be the ones to punch in the mouth first,” Melendez said. “We need to bounce back, and we will.”

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