ATHENS — It might prove to be just a blip, or it could be the week that turned around Georgia’s season. Either way, Mark Fox and his team are making things interesting.
Georgia’s task Saturday against Alabama was to not waste what it did earlier in the week, pulling off the upset win at No. 21 Missouri. And the Bulldogs did not waste that. They built on it, playing well and then holding off the Crimson Tide for a 66-58 win at Stegeman Coliseum.
The Bulldogs are now 2-0 in SEC play for the first time since 2002, a season that was later vacated by the NCAA because of violations. So technically the previous 2-0 start was in 1999.
It’s a startling turnaround, however long it lasts, for a Georgia team that went 6-6 in non-conference play and lost by 18 points in its final tuneup before SEC play began. Georgia now travels to No. 10 Florida for a stiff test, although the ensuing stretch of games is very manageable.
“We talked about that with our team, that we could throw away Wednesday if we came out here and laid an egg,” Fox said. “And so we talked about that, and I was really proud that we backed up Wednesday’s win with another one.”
It was also the 500th SEC win in Georgia men’s basketball history. That’s against 732 SEC losses. Mississippi is the only charter member of the conference yet to reach 500 wins.
Kenny Gaines led the way on the offensive end (18 points), Marcus Thornton was the key on the defensive end (five blocks and eight rebounds), and Charles Mann was solid on both ends (22 points, seven rebounds).
“These were some of the games we just weren’t able to get over the hump early in the season,” Thornton said. “And to be able to get two of them, that’s definitely a great momentum-builder for us.”
Thornton’s inside play has been huge the past two games. He had six rebounds and three blocks at Missouri, providing the dirty work around the rim the team had been missing.
Thornton redshirted last year after undergoing a third knee surgery. He was Georgia’s Mr. Basketball four years ago but never has been healthy enough to live up to it in college. Now his knees appear to have improved enough to get the lift he needs to be a factor inside.
“I feel pretty good. Not all the way there, but as close as I’ve ever been,” Thornton said.
Georgia, which was averaging 4.9 blocks per game in non-conference play, had eight the other night at Mizzou and 10 against Alabama. Thornton’s five blocks on Saturday were a career-high.
“Marcus Thornton, as much as he’s been through with three surgeries, he deserves success and we don’t win without him,” Fox said. “I think he was underappreciated before with his defense and rebounding. And I think today you see how valuable he is.”
Gaines’ point total was also a career high, with 16 of them coming in the first half. His outburst was the main reason the Bulldogs had an 11-point lead at halftime. The sophomore has been more assertive shooting 3s and taking the ball to the hole, something the coaches have told him is fine.
“I am a shooting guard, so I try to take pride in my role,” Gaines said.
“Gaines stepped up and made some shots that we had not really seen out of him,” Alabama head coach Anthony Grant said. “We knew he would be aggressive, but for him to make four 3s against a zone hurt.”
Georgia led by as many as 13, but its lead was whittled to three with more than seven minutes left. Alabama (7-8 overall, 1-1 SEC) was then done in by its poor outside shooting, as it missed a number of wide-open 3s.
Down the stretch, free throws loomed large too. Amazingly, Georgia only shot 19 percent in the second half but made up for it at the free-throw line: It was 23-for-34 in the second half. That’s well more than Alabama got to the line the entire game (16-for-23).
The final key sequence occurred in the final minute: Trailing by six, Alabama missed yet another wide-open 3, and Georgia’s Brandon Morris rebounded with 45.4 seconds left. What ensued was a litany of missed free throws and fouls by both teams, but for Georgia the important thing was that Alabama never got within a possession of tying the score. Prior to this week, Fox was critical, publicly and privately, of his team’s defense and rebounding, saying his players weren’t doing the “dirty work.” That changed. The Bulldogs outrebounded Missouri and Alabama and held the two teams to a combined 38 percent field-goal shooting.
“We’ve made progress,” Fox said. “We’ve learned through adversity. I thought this was the first time we’ve handled success fairly well. But now we’ve gotta keep moving forward and keep trying to get better.”
Gaines put it more succinctly.
“We’ve just gotta keep the hot streak rolling,” he said.