ATLANTA There was a chance for the Georgia men’s basketball team to make a major step forward Saturday. And even in losing, the once-struggling program might have increased its respect in some quarters.
But in the Bulldogs’ locker room after its loss in the SEC tournament semifinals, 70-58 to Kentucky, there was no hint of satisfaction. Maybe in the big picture, yes, a few players admitted their run the past two months had changed things. After all, this was just the second time in 16 years a Georgia team was in the semifinals.
When it came to this game, however, on this Saturday at the Georgia Dome, they truly felt they could have done more. They could have won it.
“You play the game to win the game,” junior forward Marcus Thornton said, speaking in a low, faint tone. “We felt like we had a chance.”
Indeed, Georgia and its roster of mostly three-star recruits threatened Kentucky and its McDonald’s All-Americans. But in the end, the talent gap proved too much.
It marked the end of Georgia’s improbable SEC run and the end of its NCAA tournament hopes. The Bulldogs probably needed to win the SEC championship to get a bid and at least needed to win Saturday to be in the conversation.
Instead the Bulldogs (19-13) will return home to await their near-certain NIT bid.
“I would be disappointed if our season doesn’t continue,” head coach Mark Fox said.
That itself is an accomplishment for a team of which little was expected.
Georgia was picked to finish 11th in the SEC. Kentucky was the preseason national No. 1. The two teams ended up finishing tied for second in the SEC.
Kentucky’s talent advantage was obvious, leading the game wire-to-wire. But Georgia made it a game, getting within two points in the second half. It was a marked difference from the team’s lone previous meeting, in January at Kentucky, when the Wildcats handed the Bulldogs their worst loss of the season, by 25.
The difference this time was 3-point shooting and rebounding. The Wildcats went 9-for-16 beyond the arc, while Georgia was just 3-for-13. And the smaller Bulldogs were engulfed in the post, as the Wildcats outrebounded them 36-21.
It was Georgia’s worst rebounding margin of the season. It was only the third time an SEC team has outrebounded Georgia this season, and Kentucky’s 3-point shooting was the second best against Georgia this season.
“The two areas that have been good to us all year, defense and rebounding,” Georgia sophomore forward Brandon Morris said. “Your chances aren’t really high when you’re giving up second- and third-chance opportunities.”
“Even when they beat us the first time we outrebounded them. So it’s not impossible,” Thornton said. “We just didn’t have enough fight and determination to get it done.”
Georgia did show fight in staying in the game. Kentucky threatened to run away with it early, jumping to leads of 12-2 and 18-8. Making matters worse, Georgia’s starters got in foul trouble, with point guard and leading scorer Charles Mann picking up two early fouls.
But just like in the quarterfinal win over Mississippi, Georgia’s bench came through. Point guard J.J. Frazier had five points and three rebounds in the first half, and shooting guard Juwan Parker had seven points, all on free throws. Cam Forte had a putback and then finished the half with a nice drive and baseline feed to Thornton, who laid it in to make it 36-32.
Kenny Gaines, Georgia’s second-leading scorer, had zero points in the first half, but when he scored his first points, on a layup, it go Georgia within two. It was the first time since the start of the game it was a one-possession game.
But Kentucky answered.
There were 3s by Aaron Harrison and a flurry of offensive rebounds, leading to a five-point possession at one point. Soon Kentucky had its biggest lead of the game, 13, with five minutes left.
“To beat a team that’s of that quality, you have to play very mistake-free,” Fox said. “We didn’t shoot free throws well enough or rebound the ball well enough in the first half, but we were still in the game. The second half we didn’t get enough stops or rebound well enough and they beat us.”
Afterwards, Fox told his team in the locker room that “most likely” it would get an NIT bid. It would be the first postseason trip for the program since 2011, when the team reached the NCAA tournament.
“Hopefully our season isn’t over. We still have more to prove,” Gaines said. “We can win the NIT if we’re selected to go there, and that would be a great confidence-booster going into next year.”