Fox’s team recovers, with an assist from Richt

semerson@macon.comMarch 2, 2013 

ATHENS -- There was plenty of credit to go around after the Georgia men’s basketball team pulled off perhaps its best win of the season Saturday.

The usual greatness of star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The huge 3-pointers from an injured Kenny Gaines. And the clutch free-throw shooting of fellow freshman Charles Mann.

But after Georgia’s 78-68 win over Tennessee, head coach Mark Fox started his postgame news conference by issuing credit elsewhere: Mark Richt. And Waffle House.

To understand the context, you have to go back to last year, when Fox took the football head coach to Waffle House to celebrate Richt’s contract extension. The two are good friends and often commiserate about their similar job pressures.

Early Thursday morning, Fox was still trying to recover from the previous night’s one-point loss at Vanderbilt, when his team blew a 17-point lead, and Caldwell-Pope dribbled the ball off his foot in the final minute.

“It was about 6:15 a.m., and Coach Richt reached out to me,” Fox said. “Two words: Waffle House.”

So the two had breakfast that morning. The next day, Richt spoke to Fox’s team, which has played well during the past month but received more last-second losses than wins. Richt told the players to just “get off the mat and fight again,” according to Fox.

“When we started (Saturday’s) game, we had six turnovers in the first five minutes, and I said, ‘That’s the last time Mark Richt talks to our basketball team,’ ” Fox said.

But the Bulldogs turned it around.

Georgia (14-15 overall, 8-8 SEC) isn’t going to the NCAA tournament this year unless it wins the SEC tournament in two weeks. But the Bulldogs can play spoilers down the stretch, and they might have spoiled the NCAA hopes for Tennessee (17-11, 9-7), which went into Athens on a six-game win streak.

After the slow start, Georgia raced ahead to an 11-point lead, sparked by Caldwell-Pope and Mann. It also helped that Tennessee at one point went nearly 10 minutes with just three points.

But Jordan McRae shot Tennessee back into the game and then kept shooting. The junior from Midway had a career-high 35 points, despite fouling out with 62 seconds still left in the game.

Tennessee briefly had a 41-40 lead, after McRae’s sixth 3 of the game. Georgia answered with a 6-0 run, including four free throws by Mann.

“He’s becoming a great player,” Caldwell-Pope said of Mann, who finished with a great stat line for a point guard: 18 points, eight assists and zero turnovers.

There was one key swing for Georgia, when it was leading by three with just more than six minutes left. Tennessee’s Skyler McBee missed a 3. Georgia rebounded and quickly pressed upcourt, where Vincent Williams was fouled and hit both free throws.

Less than a minute later, Gaines drilled a 3 to make it 53-45, bringing the crowd to its feet, and the Volunteers called timeout.

Gaines missed the Vanderbilt game because of a heel injury and was still limping after Saturday’s game.

“He’s still not healthy,” Fox said.

McRae did his best to get the Volunteers back in it, but Georgia kept answering. Caldwell-Pope also hit a big 3 to push it back to an eight-point lead with four minutes left.

Then it was Gaines’ turn again. He drilled a wide-open 3 with 2:45 left, and Georgia’s lead was 12.

It wasn’t over yet, thanks to McRae, who hit a pair of 3s to make it a six-point game. But Gaines answered again, this time a three-point play off a nice assist from Mann.

Then Mann kept hitting free throws -- he finished 12-for-14 -- to ice the game.

“It’s a confidence booster,” Mann said. “Tennessee is a heck of a team, they have great players, and just to get this one, it gets us back on the right track. We’ve got our confidence back.”

“You have to get rewarded for doing it right,” Fox said. “You have to have some successes along the way. This group’s growing. And for, I don’t know five or six weeks, we’ve had a chance to win every game. And you’re not gonna win every game until you learn some valuable lessons, maybe some the hard way. …

“I thought it was important for them to get back up, and having some success today helps us along the way in the process.”

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