ATHENS — It could have been the longest week of the season for Georgia. Seven days between games with the lingering memories of three straight close losses still fresh in the Bulldogs’ minds. It could have broken their spirit.
Instead, it was the spark head coach Mark Fox had been looking for.
The Bulldogs flew out of the gates against No. 8 Tennessee on Saturday in front of a packed house at Stegeman Coliseum, and unlike their previous three games, they kept their foot on the gas until the final seconds ticked off the clock to secure a 78-63 win.
“I’m very proud of our team because they’ve had some gut-wrenching defeats,” Fox said. “But they responded to those, and they deserve some credit for playing well and making the plays they had to to win.”
Ricky McPhee’s 3-pointer just 2:30 into the game gave Georgia a lead it would never relinquish. The Bulldogs led by 15 at the half and by as many as 24 in the second half before cruising to their first victory over Tennessee since 2004.
The win proved to be a weight off the shoulders of the young Georgia team that had shown so much promise in the past two weeks but had been unable to secure its first SEC victory of the year.
The Bulldogs led Kentucky at the half but finished with an eight-point loss two weeks ago. Georgia came up four points shy of knocking off Mississippi just four days later. On Jan. 16, Fox’s crew led by as many as 16 in the second half against Mississippi State but couldn’t put the game away.
What followed wasn’t a week of frustration, but rather seven days of anticipation for a chance to make up for those missed opportunities.
“We had a lot of time off, a lot of time to think about the Mississippi State game and a lot of time to prepare for Tennessee,” said sophomore Trey Thompkins, who led all scoreers with 21 points. “We took advantage of that, and we knew that when we came out in this game, we were going to leave it all on the floor.”
Center Albert Jackson said the team spent the week watching film of their mistakes in the previous games and learned a valuable lesson. The Bulldogs weren’t getting beat. They were beating themselves.
So when the team hit the floor Saturday in front of the first a sellout crowd of 10,523, the plan was simple — correct the mistakes, focus on the details and enjoy the win.
“This week in practice, we were all just real hungry to get a win,” guard Dustin Ware said. “I think that’s all anybody kept thinking about. We talked about defending, defending, defending, and we knew if we could defend, we’d be in a great position to get the win.”
The defense was exceptional.
Georgia held Tennessee to just 39 percent from the floor in the first half, and the Vols were 3-of-16 from 3-point range in the game. Meanwhile Thompkins and Travis Leslie crashed the boards to help the Bulldogs finish with a 35-24 edge in rebounds.
On the offensive end, Georgia looked every bit as sharp. From Leslie’s fastbreak, reverse dunk that wowed the crowd to the crisp passing that resulted in 17 assists as a team, the Bulldogs managed to master the finer points. They shot 56.3 percent from the field for the game, including 15-of-23 in the first half, and hit on 7-of-12 3-pointers.
“We worked hard on our passing, and it started to show a little bit,” Fox said. “(On Saturday), we made some extra passes that led to baskets, and unselfish play is really fun to watch. We had a lot of unselfish play, and that’s very rewarding.”
Despite the big second-half lead, however, the key to the game was the finish, Thompkins said.
After the devastating defeat against Mississippi State, Georgia didn’t take anything for granted down the stretch Saturday. Fox remained animated on the sideline and players barked at each other after a few silly fouls in the waning moments. On the scoreboard, it was an easy win. But it was never comfortable.
“To be honest, I never felt that way,” Thompkins said. “We know from past experience that leads don’t mean anything, that you have to keep the hammer down the whole game.”
The end result, however, was about as joyous a moment as the Bulldogs have experienced in recent seasons.
Tennessee was the highest-ranked opponent Georgia had toppled in six years and the second ranked foe to fall victim to the Bulldogs in Athens in the past three weeks.
It was just more than a year ago that Dennis Felton was fired as Georgia’s coach amid a long losing streak. For Ware, standing on the court after Saturday’s win, soaking in the applause of the vocal crowd, it was hard not to think about how far his team had come.
“It was the first time I’d ever experienced anything like that,” he said. “It was so fun just hearing a sold-out crowd screaming and just honoring as hard as we played. Hopefully we keep giving them performances like that.”