ATHENS — Kenny Gaines had two short conversations Saturday. The first was with the mercurial and talkative Marshall Henderson. The next was with the painfully shy Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Two very different people. But two very good basketball players who can really shoot. And Gaines played like he belonged in their company.
In a game both thrilling and important, in front of a rare sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum, Gaines came up huge for Georgia. The sophomore outshot Henderson on the offensive end, then stopped him on the defensive end. Then teammate Charles Mann hit a free throw with 1.5 seconds left to win it, and a last-second Ole Miss heave went out of bounds as the horn sounded for a 61-60 win.
“I feel like my heart was just falling all over the place.” Gaines said. “I was up, and then I was down. I tried to stay composed. Teammates just tried to keep each other calm in certain situations. It’s a great thing to be a part of.”
Now, Georgia (14-10, 8-4 SEC) is alone in third place in the SEC, behind only Florida and Kentucky. And the Bulldogs own yet another win over an NCAA bubble team, this time Ole Miss (16-9, 7-5).
Gaines was candid when asked, if back when the Bulldogs started 1-4, whether he thought they would be in this position.
“I can’t say that I did,” he said. “I was just hoping that we’d get ourselves together and play better.”
Now on a four-game winning streak, the Bulldogs have done just that. This victory was the latest step. The Bulldogs recovered from an 11-point first-half deficit, and after rallying to take their own 11-point lead, they recovered from a potentially demoralizing late turn of events.
Last year in a loss at Ole Miss, Gaines was called for a controversial technical foul when officials ruled he elbowed Henderson in the face. Henderson, known for his antics, appeared to sell that call.
History almost repeated itself Saturday. Georgia clung to a one-point lead when Marcus Thornton rebounded a Henderson miss, then after a few seconds of close defense appeared to elbow Henderson. Another technical was called, and Henderson hit two free throws to give Ole Miss the lead with 1:55 left.
“I was pretty mad,” Thornton said. “Because I think the play went on a little too long. But there’s nothing I can do about that. ... I don’t know, I didn’t see the replay. But I was on the lucky side of it at the end.”
“It was kinda similar to the call I got last year,” Gaines said, smiling. “But we played through.”
They did, first thanks to Nemanja Djurisic, whose baseline drive tied the game with 1:26 left. Then it was Gaines, who drilled an open 3-pointer with 47 seconds left, giving Georgia the lead.
Gaines finished with a team-high 21 points, all but two of which came in the second half. He only played seven minutes in the first half, part of the reason the Bulldogs trailed almost the entire half.
Then he caught fire in the second half, scoring 10 points in the first 10 minutes, including a four-point play. After one 3-pointer, he said something to Henderson.
“I told him I was feeling a little Marshall Henderson syndrome,” Gaines said. “He kinda chuckled.”
Gaines also was the main defender on Henderson, who scored 24 points, mainly in spurts. But Gaines had his good moments on defense, including a block of a Henderson 3-point attempt, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Georgia head coach Mark Fox harkened back to last year, when Gaines, then a freshman backup, had to guard Calwell-Pope every day in practice.
“That really matured him,” Fox said. “Now he’s taking those lessons from a year ago and using those to his advantage.”
Caldwell-Pope, who beat out Henderson to be last year’s SEC player of the year, is now a Detroit Pistons rookie. He was at Saturday’s game, sitting in the front row, and afterwards talked briefly with Gaines.
“After the game he just told me, ‘Good shooting.’ I reminded him of him when he was here, just making good plays,” Gaines said.
But even after his last-minute 3, it wasn’t over. Gaines was all over Henderson, so Jarvis Summers took the ball to the hole. He was fouled while hitting the shot, and his free throw tied it with 33.2 seconds left.
Georgia got the ball back. Mann, the point guard, held for the final shot. He waited until almost the final second, appeared set to try a jumper and instead leaned into the defender, drawing the foul.
“I had a feeling they were gonna jump at my pump fake, so it planned out pretty well,” Mann said.
He missed the first free throw. He took a few steps back, then went back and drained the second. Later he said he knew he was going to make it.
“The first one felt pretty good,” Mann said. “I just wanted to stay composed. I kept on believing in myself.”
The crowd erupted, and Ole Miss called timeout. The inbounds pass was too long, glancing off the hands of a Rebels player and out of bounds as the clock ran out.
“Of course every game is a big game. But this game was real big,” Mann said. “We’re in third place now. We can’t just stop here. We’ve gotta keep on pushing. But this is a big win, and we wanted this one bad.”