ATHENS — Georgia’s Saturday night 72-58 beating of No. 18 Vanderbilt wasn’t contradicted by a feeling of what could have been this season. The emotion trended to what could continue to be.
After suffering losses in six of its seven SEC games, most in heartbreaking fashion, Georgia finally finished the second half with authority. Finally employed a team-wide scoring effort. Finally quit turning the ball over and focused on defense.
“We’ve talked about some of the mistakes we’ve made that cost us some leads,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “We were more determined. We didn’t start the (second) half well, and we were able to recognize it. We really improved our defense in the gut of the second half once we got down. A lot of guys made some plays (Saturday). Very much a team win.”
For Georgia, the game didn’t begin as smoothly as it ended.
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After Vanderbilt scored seven of the game’s first 11 points, Georgia sprang to life, reeling off a 15-2 run to build a 19-9 lead midway through the first half. During the near flawless run the Bulldogs scored at will, with nine points coming from Thompkins, who finished the game with 17 points, and forced turnovers and poor Commodores shooting on defense.
But the Bulldogs could not maintain control. Hampered by the same poor tendencies of the past few weeks, poor defense and careless turnovers, Georgia allowed Vanderbilt back in the game.
Behind two consecutive 3’s by senior guard Jermaine Beal, who finished with a game-high 21 points, Vanderbilt tied the game at 21.
From there, the scoring almost completely halted, as physical play took the place of any hope for scoring spurts.
Another Beal 3, his fourth of the half, gave Vanderbilt a 26-23 lead at the break.
The first half was a demonstration of how not to effectively score, or win. The second half was a different Bulldogs’ display.
Vanderbilt began the second half with better fortune scoring than the previous 20 minutes. A lay-up by A.J. Ogilvy, two baskets by Brad Tinsley, who scored 18, and three free throws by Jeffrey Taylor had the Commodores on the verge of a blowout.
But two Dustin Ware 3’s and four points from Thompkins kept the Bulldogs close.
A Ricky McPhee 3 capped the comeback, pulling Georgia to within one, 41-40.
An Albert Jackson block on the next Vanderbilt possession gave the Bulldogs a much-needed defensive moment, as Travis Leslie then hit two free throws to give the Bulldogs the lead.
The momentum was all Georgia’s. This time, the Bulldogs did not fall flat.
Leslie continued to attack the basket, drawing two fouls and hitting four free throws. The sophomore scored 13 of his 17 total points in the second half.
“I knew the team needed me to step up in the second half,” Leslie said, “and that’s what I did. I gave the team what I always do, just playing hard and aggressive.”
A subtle play Leslie made showed the breaks were falling in Georgia’s favor. In pursuit of a missed Jeremy Price free throw, Leslie managed to knock the ball out of bounds off a Vanderbilt player. On the inbounds pass, Price smashed down a two-handed dunk, giving Georgia a 50-45 lead with just over nine minutes to play.
After Vanderbilt closed to within one, Price returned the favor to Leslie, knocking a loose ball off a Commodores player. Leslie scored an easy lay-up on the inbounds pass and then pumped in a 3-pointer from the corner to extend the lead to 55-49.
The Georgia lead did not fall below five from then on.
The Bulldogs increased the defensive intensity and dominated the boards, finishing with a 43-28 advantage on the glass.
“We feel like our frontline, our small forwards, and even our guards can rebound with anybody,” Thompkins said. (Saturday) we put great emphasis on rebounding because we knew they had a bunch of big bodies and we’d have to work hard on the glass.”
A Vincent Williams 3-pointer ballooned the margin to double digits with four minutes to play, as Georgia fans let out losing-streak frustration. Williams scored a season-high seven points while seeing increased action with Ware missing practice time with the flu this week.
“He knew he was going to have to play a lot because Dustin had the flu and was on an IV (Friday),” Fox said. “We worked with some crazy lineup trying to think about matchups. Vincent gave us some very nice minutes and made some nice plays.”
Georgia was doubling it’s SEC win total. A Ricky McPhee 3-pointer extended the lead to 68-54 with 2:58 to play to make sure of it.
“Yeah, definitely, we’re just learning from these experiences and go out there and makes plays,” McPhee said. “We were able to come up with a victory (Saturday).”
The win over Vanderbilt gave Georgia it’s third win over a ranked opponent this season, including wins over Tennessee and Georgia Tech. But it was those losses, Fox said, those narrow misses, that helped Georgia get this victory.
“That’s experience,” he said. “This was the first time those experiences have worked to our advantage. And we’ll have to continue to grow from it.”