ATHENS -- The first 37 minutes were ugly and devoid of much in the way of good basketball. The rest of the game was exciting enough to salvage a passable final score and a victory for a Georgia team that badly needed it.
The Bulldogs (10-8 overall, 1-3 SEC) hustled and rebounded in the final minute to rally past Tennessee 57-53 in overtime Wednesday night at Stegeman Coliseum.
It was an important win for Georgia, which couldn’t afford a home loss against Tennessee, which is one of the competitors for the worst team in the SEC. The Vols are 8-10 overall and 1-3 in the conference.
So it didn’t matter that the Bulldogs only shot 35 percent, including 10 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, and turned the ball over 16 times.
“Any time it’s a win it’s beautiful to me,” said Georgia forward Marcus Thornton, who returned earlier than expected from a late-December knee surgery.
Senior guard Gerald Robinson keyed the comeback for Georgia, making several baskets in the final minute of regulation. His runner with 18.3 seconds left tied it at 46.
Robinson did it on a bum ankle, which he rolled during the second half. He was still limping when he came into the postgame media room.
“Yeah, but in a game like that it doesn’t really hit you until after,” said Robinson, who finished with a game-high 16 points and five assists. “We just showed a will to win. We understood we were 0-3 so we just had to fight.”
But it was rebounding and defense that keyed the team in overtime. At the 3:16 mark, freshman forward Nemanja Djurisic broke up a pass, saved it from going out of bounds and in so doing knocked it off a Tennessee player. That brought the crowd to its feet.
Georgia still trailed in the final minute, until some pretty passing in the half-court offense. Forward Donte Williams was fouled making a layup, which put the Bulldogs up one. He missed the free throw, but freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope grabbed the rebound.
A few moments later, another rebound resulted in Georgia retaining the ball, via the possession arrow. Robinson was fouled and hit two free throws to make it 56-53, and on the other end the Vols missed a runner.
The drama wasn’t quite over, as Caldwell-Pope missed his first free throw attempt. But he nailed the second with 12.5 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.
“This game really showed the character of both teams,” said Georgia head coach Mark Fox, who was fired up enough in the second half that he angrily took off his suit jacket and drew a technical foul. “I thought both teams really had to battle and play through some adverse moments. I was proud of my team for continuing to fight forward.”
The game saw the return of Georgia sophomore Marcus Thornton, the team’s leading rebounder before getting his knee scoped in late December. Playing for the first time since then, Thornton didn’t score and committed four fouls in 23 minutes.
“There’s no such thing as 100 percent to me,” Thornton said. “You’ve gotta suck it up, not be a baby about it.”
Thornton was only cleared to play Tuesday, and hadn’t practiced in a month, according to Fox. But the coach said he had no hesitation to play him.
“Zero. I mean have you seen our team defend without him?” Fox said. “He’s a key part of our team. ... He made some really key plays for us.”