Georgia falls to No. 1 Indiana 66-53

As Georgia guard Sherrard Brantley badly missed a three-pointer with less than four minutes remaining Monday night, the boisterous, pro-Indiana crowd finally could make their feelings known.

For too long, the thousands of Hoosiers supporters watched the nation’s top-ranked team struggle against the Bulldogs, a team that had lost consecutive games to Youngstown State and Southern Mississippi, schools not exactly known for basketball prowess.

Now, with Indiana safely in front and on its way to a 66-53 victory, the fans at Barclays Center proceeded to heckle Brantley.

“Airball, airball, airball,” they screamed.

Georgia is 0-14 against top-ranked teams, but for a while it looked like the Bulldogs were on the verge of an upset. They were ahead for most of the first half and held a 30-29 lead at intermission. With less than nine minutes to play, Georgia only trailed 45-42 after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s three-pointer.

Then, on consecutive possessions, Indiana guard Jordan Hulls hit a three-pointer, drew an offensive foul and connected on another three. The Hoosiers (4-0) led by at least eight points the rest of the way.

Georgia coach Mark Fox criticized his players’ decision-making in the second half, saying they had “a lot of immature plays” and were looking for “hero baskets,” when aiming to expand the lead. Instead, by rushing their attempts and missing too early in the shot clock, they provided easy opportunities for Indiana to score.

“For 30 minutes, we looked like the team we thought we were going to have,” Fox said. “We just didn’t do it long enough … The key will be to learn how to play 40 minutes, not 30.”

Indiana won despite an off-night from Cody Zeller, the consensus preseason national player of the year. Zeller has had flu-like symptoms for more than a week, has missed several practices and was less than 100 percent healthy on Monday.

After committing his second foul, Zeller sat out the final nine minutes of the first half. Zeller, who was averaging 17.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, finished with six points, attempted only four field goals and grabbed four rebounds in 27 minutes.

The Bulldogs did not deny passes to Zeller, but they trapped him with multiple defenders when he caught the ball. Zeller said Georgia’s tactics were not new, although Georgia is taller than most teams Indiana faces: five Bulldogs who played at least 15 minutes on Monday are at least 6-foot-8.

Even the smaller Bulldogs were physical. Midway through the second half, 6-foot-3 guard Kenny Gaines knocked Zeller to the floor, knocking out one of Zeller’s contact lenses. Zeller put it back in but proceeded to miss both free throws.

“They’re a talented team,” Zeller said. “They’re a lot better than their record (1-3) says. I think they’re going to have a pretty good year.”

Still, Indiana dominated inside with a 40-24 rebounding advantage and scored 28 points in the paint compared with 12 for Georgia. The Bulldogs again struggled offensively, shooting only 34 percent from the field and 36 percent on threes.

Caldwell-Pope and Vincent Williams, Georgia’s starting backcourt, led the Bulldogs with 14 points apiece. Caldwell-Pope only made 4-of-15 field goals, while Williams hit two threes in the final two minutes when the game was out of reach.

“Every game we’ve got to build on,” said Georgia forward Donte Williams, who made his first start of the season and had five points before fouling out. “We’ve got to keep competing, keep getting better.”