“A win is a win, and a loss is a loss,” Wheeler said. “I am a little bit upset we lost. I feel like we should have won.”
The Bulldogs said the same thing after No. 1 seed Alabama beat them in Athens on Saturday. That was Georgia’s third loss in four games. The one victory, against LSU, suggested the Bulldogs might be able to make noise in Nashville if they could get it together. Instead the Bulldogs were one-and-out.
Georgia’s streak of years without an NCAA Tournament berth is at six. Mark Fox’s Bulldogs didn’t make it his last three seasons. Tom Crean’s teams haven’t gone in his first three. Crean said he’s told the NCAA he wants his team to play in the NIT next week in Texas. Georgia’s season will be over if it doesn’t get one of 16 NIT berths.
For a brief time the Bulldogs seemed to have a shot at their first NCAA tourney berth since 2015. Georgia beat Missouri on Feb. 13 to improve to 6-8 in league games with four to go. After beating LSU the Bulldogs were 14-9 overall, 7-9 in the SEC.
Crean said the team was dispirited after the loss to Alabama but perked up for the walk-through session at the hotel on Wednesday. The Bulldogs rallied late to beat Mizzou in Athens. They tried to do it again in the rematch but never did get the lead over the final 14:30.
“It’s disappointing,” Wheeler said. “They made a few more plays down the stretch. We didn’t finish some plays. But we fought back.”
The Bulldogs fell behind by 12 points twice in the second half. They couldn’t slow Missouri’s Dru Smith and Kobe Brown. Both players scored 12 points after halftime.
But Wheeler and running mate K.D. Johnson kept coming at the Tigers. Georgia’s defense turned up the pressure. Wheeler snagged some key steals. The Bulldogs weren’t finished.
Missouri’s advantage was one point with three minutes to play. Georgia trailed by two when Toumani Camara made a strong move to earn two free throws with 19 seconds left. A lane violation by a teammate took a free throw away and Camara missed his one attempt. Georgia fouled Missouri on the rebound.
The Tigers made two free throws for a 71-67 lead with 18 seconds to go. Then Wheeler weaved through Mizzou’s defense and passed to senior Justin Kier for a 3-point try. He made it. Georgia was down by a point again with 12 seconds to go.
Missouri made two more free throws before Horne missed the 3-point try with a second to play. It was one of two misses for Georgia on seven 3-point attempts in the second half. The Bulldogs were 8-for-16 on 3′s for the game. But Georgia missed 5 of 11 free throws after halftime.
“I’m proud of their effort,” Crean said. “I hate when you look at the free throws and know they can make a difference.”
Georgia offered little resistance at the rim while falling behind early. Missouri’s first four baskets: Mark Smith layup, Tilmon dunk, and back-to-back layups by Dru Smith. Georgia’s defense got better from there. The Bulldogs forged a 12-12 tie on Camara’s streaking dunk on a crafty feed from Wheeler. It was tied 14-14 when Horne cleared Tilmon out from under the basket and Tilmon fell out of bounds with the ball for a turnover.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin summoned Tilmon to the bench after that play. Tilmon didn’t play against Georgia in the first meeting. His size was supposed to make a difference in the second game. Instead, he seemed flustered by the persistence of Georgia’s smaller defenders.
Brown was giving Georgia more trouble inside. He scored 16 points and collected seven rebounds (four offensive). Brown is just 6-foot-7 but he’s stout. Camara did good work to get 10 rebounds, but more muscle is near the top of Georgia’s offseason checklist.
The Bulldogs had a five-point lead at halftime because of Wheeler’s playmaking. He went at Missouri’s big men when they switched on pick-and-rolls. Wheeler slithered into space and zipped passes to teammates ready to shoot from behind the 3-point line.
Wheeler had 14 points and 13 assists. Eventually, Missouri made it tougher for him to drive and scrambled quicker to Georgia’s shooters when he kicked out passes. Said Crean: “It was hard to get things in that lane but our guys kept working to figure it out.”
The Tigers got their drive-and-kick game going at the other end. Missouri’s 23-13 run over nine minutes in the second half included four straight 3-pointers and seven total. Mizzou led 62-50 with 7:31 to go.
The Bulldogs didn’t fold. They were tough enough to beat a bigger and stronger foe. Georgia just wasn’t good enough at the end. Now its season likely is over.