ATHENS – It was the longest game of the season, riddled with fouls and free throws, ruled by the whistle-happy officials.
“It was definitely an elongated game,” Georgia’s Marcus Thornton said.
“It was pretty slow,” Georgia’s Nemanja Djurisic said, shaking his head. “It was frustrating in moments, but good thing we were up, so it wasn’t as frustrating.”
That was the gist of it. The ridiculous amount of fouls almost overshadowed the Georgia men’s basketball team passing another test, as it continued a surprising resurgence.
Finding itself a heavy favorite for the first time in an SEC game, Georgia did not let down against South Carolina or look ahead to Saturday’s game at No. 14 Kentucky. Instead, the Bulldogs ran away with a 96-76 win in a game that was never really close.
So for the first time since 2003, the Bulldogs are 4-1 in conference play. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that began the season 1-4 and finished 6-6 in non-conference.
Now, remarkably, Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena will be a matchup of second-place teams in a 14-team conference.
“Our confidence is skyrocketing,” Georgia forward Brandon Morris said.
Djurisic, who led Georgia with a career-high 22 points, was asked if he thought the team could be 4-1 in SEC play.
“I don’t know about 4-1, but I would believe that we can do something special this year,” he said. “We believe in our team and coach believes in us. No matter what the media says, or the polls, we really believe in each other as a team.”
“It took us awhile to figure out how to play without Kentavious (Caldwell-Pope),” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “I think we’ve got a better understanding of how this group needs to play to win. We’ve protected our home court. We have a road win. And there’s a long way to go in this league and it’s way too early to talk about anything but the next game. But I’m pleased with our start, and we certainly have a big challenge in Lexington on Saturday.”
South Carolina (7-11 overall, 0-5 SEC) did not offer much of a fight, with Georgia leading by as many as 25.
It was easily Georgia’s highest scoring output this season. Georgia also set a season-high with 10 3-pointers, equaling its previous mark of nine with 14:10 still left in the game.
Djurisic finished perfect from the floor and also had five rebounding and three assists. This after the junior had struggled the three previous games, combining for just 11 points and not hitting a 3.
“I just told the team, 'I could have babied Nemi the last 10 days.' He played well because he was determined to play well,” Fox said.
The officials also seemed determined to make liberal use of their powers. There were 59 fouls called and 86 free throws attempted. The game lasted 140 minutes, and without the benefit of overtime.
In short, it was another reflection of the increased emphasis on taking physical play out of college basketball.
“I told one of the officials during the game, 'I’m not mad because we need to call these fouls,' ” Fox said. “That was the emphasis this year, this was the change, that’s why scoring had dropped so low. That’s the way we need to call the game and teams will adjust. Because our game had deteriorated because we had let it get so physical.
“We probably haven’t had one like this in a while, but I’m glad it was called that way.”
But there were some isolated moments of quality basketball. Georgia’s Kenny Gaines stuffed a 3-point attempt, picked up the loose ball, then led a fast break and fed Brandon Morris for a dunk.
A short time later Djurisic drained a 3, making it a 19-point game. As he went back on defense, he rose his hands as the crowd cheered.
A few seconds later Djuricis was elbowed in the face by South Carolina’s Michael Carrera. Foul number 36 was called.
The elbow didn’t affect Djurisic’s confidence, or his shooting: On the ensuing possession he drained a 25-footer, making it a 22-point game with 14:10 left.
At that point fans started to leave, though the officials didn’t, so the fouls continued. But the Bulldogs finished it off, and gave the remaining fans a few more highlights: An alley-oop dunk by Thornton, off a Morris pass, punctuated the win.
“I think we’re just a couple plays here and there from a better record in nonconference. So I’m not surprised at all,” Thornton said.