ATHENS -- Charles Mann had a nightmare first 30 minutes. He was on the verge of seeing his season, and that of his Georgia men’s basketball team, end at home in humiliating fashion.
Mann had gotten the Bulldogs into this mess. The sophomore point guard would have to get them out of it. And so he did, by doing what made him an all-conference candidate.
Mann scored a career-high 29 points, including 25 in the second half, spurring Georgia to a 63-56 win over Vermont in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday. The Bulldogs advanced to host Louisiana Tech at 11 a.m. on Saturday
The victory gave Georgia (20-13) another benchmark in its surprising season: A 20th win for only the 11th time in school history.
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It was Georgia’s first postseason since 2007, (not including the SEC tournament), and only the second since 2002.
The atmosphere at Stegeman Coliseum was one of the best of the season, despite only being an announced crowd of 3,951. Students account for 1,428. The general admission, first-come first-serve seating resulted in most fans being in the lower sections, making it louder and more intense.
“The energy in the building was terrific,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “That’s how it can be all the time. But (Wednesday) it was a big advantage for us.”
Vermont head coach John Becker, whose team played at Duke in November, called it “a great atmosphere,” and Catamounts senior guard Sandro Carissimo said, “It was more fun than anything. I don’t think it really rattles you. It just makes the game that much more fun to play in.”
Georgia’s Marcus Thornton, who missed the team’s shootaround earlier in the day because he had class, went from airballing two early shots to scoring 16 points. Thornton and Mann were the only Bulldogs in double figures.
It was an ugly game most of the way, with Georgia setting a season-high with 22 turnovers. In fact, Georgia surpassed its previous season high with 9:54 still left in the game.
“Our ball-handling was terrible,” Fox said.
Then Fox elbowed Mann, who smiled sheepishly, aware that he had a season-high seven turnovers.
Motivation is often the problem for high-major teams in the NCAA, but Georgia seemed ready to play. It was simply out of sync on offense.
“We just got kind of lazy with the ball, made some careless mistakes, and did some things that are really uncharacteristic of us,” Thornton said. “Eventually we got settled down, but that’s something we’ve got to cut down on if we want to keep winning games.”
Vermont (22-11) trailed by nine at halftime but vaulted into the lead with a 21-2 run in the second half. Mann was struggling immensely, committing many of the turnovers himself.
But when Georgia’s deficit reached nine, it was Mann who spurred the comeback, then carried it through.
“During halftime my teammates told me to keep my head up, and just play the way I play,” Mann said.
The Bulldogs committed just one turnover the final 9:54. That was vital, and so was Mann’s offense, attacking the basket and drawing fouls, the formula that made him a second-team all-SEC selection.
“I just wanted to make some plays to try to bring us back, whether it was the extra pass or attack the rim,” Mann said. “My teammates just helped me by spreading the floor, and I was able to attack.”
Georgia was also helped -- uncharacteristically -- by its free throw shooting. It was 24-for-26 from the line, with Mann going 12-for-13. Vermont was 6-for-15, missing four straight in the final minutes.
“Our team believes in itself,” Fox said. “This group now understands how to win. You don’t have to play from in front all night in order to win. You can manage the game and stay within striking distance, make your plays. So I think we’re confident in the fact that we’re starting to learn to play in different situations. That feels good that we were able to respond (Wednesday).”