With 12 games to go, Georgia’s postseason goals in reach

Georgia guard RJ Melendez (15) dunks past LSU guard Jordan Wright (6) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Stegeman Coliseum, Wednesday, January 24, 2024, in Athens. Georgia won 68-66 over LSU. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia guard RJ Melendez (15) dunks past LSU guard Jordan Wright (6) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Stegeman Coliseum, Wednesday, January 24, 2024, in Athens. Georgia won 68-66 over LSU. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

ATHENS — That “T” word is being uttered within the Georgia Bulldogs’ locker room. That’s “T,” as in tournament.

For sure, there is a long, long way to go. The Bulldogs (14-5, 4-2 SEC) on Wednesday secured their 14th win of the season with a hard-fought 68-66 victory over LSU (11-8, 3-3) at Stegeman Coliseum. With 12 games remaining in the regular season, Georgia needs two more wins to match last year’s total of 16.

With six or more, the Bulldogs should be in contention for a postseason bid, either in the NCAA or NIT. That starts with taking care of business in their home games. Georgia did that Wednesday, thanks to Russel Tchewa’s late-game heroics.

“If you’re going to be in the conversation to play some postseason, there’s going to be a handful of those (kind of games) for a team like us,” coach Mike White said of Georgia’s flawed play. “If we’re fortunate to get over the hump and win some or all of those, you give yourself a better chance.”

Six of the Bulldogs’ remaining games are at home, where they are 11-1 this season. Their only loss at Stegeman so far was 74-69 to No. 5 Tennessee on Jan. 13. Georgia blew an 11-point lead in the final six minutes in that one.

The Bulldogs nearly had a similar collapse Wednesday. They led by eight with 2:55 to play before LSU took a one-point lead with 17.4 seconds remaining. But Tchewa’s three-point play off a put-back with 2.3 seconds to go proved to be the game-winner.

With victory secured, that gave the Bulldogs a fifth “Quad 3″ win against no losses, according to the NCAA men’s basketball’s NET rankings. They improve to 10-0 overall versus Quad 3 and 4 opponents.

Georgia is 1-3 in the all-important Quad 1 games. The lone win came on the road over South Carolina on Jan. 16. The Bulldogs are 3-2 in Quad 2 games and will get another such game against Florida on Saturday in Gainesville (noon, ESPN2) At the moment, it all adds up to a No. 78 NET ranking for the Bulldogs, a two-spot improvement from earlier in the week.

However, Georgia has not yet risen even to “next-4-out” status in Joe Lunardi’s NCAA bracketology report. That’s where Florida (13-6, 3-3) currently sits. So, there remains much work to be done, and that starts Saturday at the O’Connell Center.

Georgia hasn’t played in the “Big Dance” since 2015; it hasn’t made the NIT since 2016. Senior Jabri Abdur-Rahim and junior RJ Melendez are the only current Bulldogs who have played in the NCAA Tournament. That was with their previous teams, Virginia and Illinois, respectively).

“I definitely think this team will be in the tournament,” said Melendez, who played in the NCAAs with the Illini last March. “We’ve got a lot of potential. I’ve seen it when we play top teams. We’re still figuring stuff out, but I think we’re definitely going to be an NCAA team.”

Of the 12 remaining games, six are against projected NCAA teams. That includes two against Auburn, which is a No. 3 seed in Lunardi’s latest bracket. So, opportunities await.

“I’m more focused on having a good practice today, then you’ll play better tomorrow and give yourself a chance to be in a good position,” said White, who went to five NCAA tournaments as Florida’s coach. “If you win enough, good things will happen. But it’s a waste of time for us to talk about it.”

Tchewa chills

Tchewa celebrated briefly with his teammates on the court immediately following his game-winning shot. But the 7-foot, 280-pound graduate transfer from South Florida was relatively chill during postgame interviews.

Tchewa pointed out that, between a season at Texas Tech, three with the USF Bulls and another season with a club team in Rome, Italy, he’d made game-winning baskets before. Two years ago, he recorded a notable winning shot for USF to beat Cincinnati on the road.

When a reporter asked Tchewa about the pressure of converting his free throw with 2.3 seconds remaining, he downplayed that, too.

“Just make it,” Tchewa said of his mindset in the moment. “I’m a good free-throw shooter. I shoot 72% from the free-throw line, so I knew it was going to go in.”

Indeed, after making 3-of-4 against LSU, Tchewa is shooting 71.7% from the free-throw line this season. That’s an improvement over his career percentage of .583 coming in.

With the exception of a poor outing against Tennessee, Tchewa has been steady low-post presence for the Bulldogs. Wednesday’s double-double was his second of the season. He blocked two more shots to give him a team-high 13 this season and he’s averaging 6.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Those numbers rise to 8.2 and 7.3 in SEC play. He’s averaged 25 minutes per game in January.

Georgia expects even more.

“He does that all the time in practice,” freshman guard Silas Demary said of Tchewa’s game-winning putback. “We ask him to get every rebound. I feel like it was big for him to get that, and it will boost his confidence. He’s really good, but he’s getting more confident, and that’s really important with our schedule.”

Tchewa shrugged.

“We have two to three hours to celebrate, then we must get ready for the next one,” he said.

Off the mark

While Tchewa was on the mark Wednesday, most of his teammates were off. The Bulldogs made just 33% of their shots in the second half, including 18% from 3-point range (2-11). Georgia’s primary scorers seemingly all struggled.

A week after scoring 34 at Kentucky, Abdur-Rahim was 2-of-10 (1-of-8 on 3s) and had only 9 points. Second-leading scorer Noah Thomasson was 4-of-10 and Justin Hill was 1-of-5. Only Demary, who led the Bulldogs 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting, seemed in sync.

Credit LSU, White said.

“LSU had a lot to do with that, their proximity to Jabri throughout the 40 (minutes),” he said. “LSU is a great defensive team. Their attention to detail and their execution overall was terrific. Nothing came easy for us.”

In particular, Georgia would like to see Thomasson and Hill get it going in the next couple of games. Thomasson is 8-of-27 (.296) from the field and 2-11 on 3-pointers the past four games, and Hill is 8-for-32 (.250) and 0-for-4 from 3 over the same span.

“We’ve got a lot of room for growth,” White said. “But we’re resilient.”

Etc.

With his lone 3-pointer Wednesday night, Abdur-Rahim has now made 47 3′s in 19 games. He had 46 through 32 games last season. … Demary has scored in double-digits in six of the past seven games. … Hill (9.1 ppg) and Melendez (9.8) need to raise their scoring averages only 1.1 points between them to give the Bulldogs five double-figure scorers. At 76.1 per game, Georgia is averaging nearly eight points more than it did last season. The Bulldogs are averaging 78 points in SEC games.

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