Freshman backup spurs hot Bulldogs

semerson@macon.comFebruary 2, 2013 

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Mark Fox would say later he was just playing a hunch.

Kenny Gaines, the object of the Georgia head coach’s hunch, didn’t get any explanation.

“We don’t ask questions, we just come out and play,” Gaines said.

Then he laughed.

And play Gaines did. So did the rest of the men who until recently been known as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s supporting cast. The result was an amazing thing: Georgia won at South Carolina, 67-56 despite a quiet second half from its star.

The result was perhaps even more amazing, at least from the perspective of Georgia’s awful start to this season, including an 0-3 start in SEC play.

The Bulldogs are now 4-4 in conference play and tied for sixth, in the upper half of the SEC standings.

“Confidence, and we see how good we are,” point guard Charles Mann said. “We feel real good in finishing games and feel real good in playing together.”

“I’ve never not liked our team. I have never not liked our team all year,” said Fox, whose team still has a losing overall record, 10-11, but has won four of its past five games.

“I’ve never, through the slow start and the hole that we’re still not out of, I have never had a time where I did not like our team. We still have a long way to go. We have so many areas to improve in. But I’ve always liked our team, and I have faith in them, and they’ve always been fully invested in the process, and that’s why they’re finding some success.”

The improved play of Caldwell-Pope’s supporting cast has been the major theme during Georgia’s current three-game winning streak. Georgia was a one-man team in the first half Saturday, when Caldwell-Pope scored 16 points but his team trailed by one. But that changed after halftime.

Fox inserting Gaines into the starting lineup was a surprise and a leap of faith. The freshman came into the game averaging 2.5 points and 8.4 minutes per game, and he had played eight scoreless minutes in the first half.

And yet Gaines, a 6-foot-2 guard, was on fire from the start. He scored the first four points of the half, giving the Bulldogs the lead for good. He had a putback dunk to make it 37-33. And he later hit a 3-pointer to push the lead further.

“I just felt like he’s been coming on,” Fox said. “He has the privilege of practicing against Kentavious every day. Most of the time that’s not a whole lot of fun, but it’s made him a better basketball player. (Saturday) he was able to really help our team. … I just had a hunch in my gut that it was a good time to let him have a run at it.”

Georgia was incredibly hot from the field, making 25-of-43, including 6-of-13 from beyond the arc. The team got critical 3-pointers in the second half from Gaines, Sherrard Brantley, Vincent Williams -- and Caldwell-Pope’s lone basket of the half, also a 3.

“Right now, everyone’s stepping up,” Caldwell-Pope said. “That’s probably the big difference that we have. At the beginning of the season, no one was stepping up. But now they’re getting more comfortable, and as we’re playing more games they’re stepping up and making baskets.”

Once Georgia had the lead, it kept it down the stretch by hitting free throws. Charles Mann, whose free-throw misses might have cost his team a chance to beat Mississippi State on Jan. 12, went 4-for-4 in the final minutes. Gaines also went 2-for-2.

The improved poise near the end of games is something Fox said his friend, head football coach Mark Richt, has noticed, as well.

“Coach Richt and I are good friends, and he called me after we played LSU, and he said, ‘It looks like your team is starting to get confident late in games.’

“For another coach to recognize that means a lot to me,” Fox said.

When it was over, the joy of a winning streak was audible. After road wins, Fox makes them sing the Georgia fight song.

“Which has evolved into their own version of the fight song,” Fox said. “It started out singing, I guess it’s become rapping, I don’t really know. It’s kind of a private thing. But that’s the way we celebrate on the road, and it’s kinda neat.”

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