ATHENS — There was momentum, confidence and a raucous home crowd, three things the Georgia men's basketball team hasn't been used to entering SEC play. And through one half it added up to a good lead over a good team. Georgia verged on another quality win, this time over No. 23 Arkansas.
Then it slipped away. The Razorbacks’ hot second-half shooting and defense were too much, as they pulled out a 79-75 win Tuesday night at Stegeman Coliseum.
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak for Georgia, which entered ranked No. 20 in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Facing Arkansas (12-2) offered Georgia (9-4) another chance for a quality win, but the inability to close this out could be costly, depending on how the rest of SEC play goes.
“It’s a hiccup,” Georgia senior forward Nemanja Djurisic said. “It’s adversity that we’ll fight through, and we’ll be able to come back.”
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Georgia led by as many as 13 in the first half, when it shot the ball well and held on to it, too. But things turned in the second half, thanks mostly to Arkansas’ ability to drain tough outside shots, and its trademark pressing defense.
Against a team with Arkansas’ style, it can be a vicious cycle: Stop them from hitting shots, as Georgia did in the first half, and they don’t have a chance to set their trapping defense. But when the Razorbacks hit those shots in the second half, the defense was set and the turnovers ensued.
There were 11 turnovers in the second half by Georgia, and when they took shots they often weren't good ones. The Bulldogs also missed six free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one.
“There were just a couple of really careless plays, by a lot of people,” Georgia senior forward Marcus Thornton said. “We didn’t value every possession. We paid the price.”
Meanwhile, Arkansas was 14-for-25 from the floor in the second half, including 4-for-7 on 3-pointers. Arkansas might have been hot, but the Bulldogs said they could have done more to stop it. J.J. Frazier said there were communication issues that prevented good defensive switches. And even when they got in front of a player, according to Thornton, it wasn’t just a matter of the shot going down.
“You can’t let them shoot jumpers in your mouth,” Thornton said. “You’ve gotta play harder.”
Georgia was in control in the first half, jumping out to leads of 12-6 and 19-10. Georgia’s rebounding was very good early, and Arkansas’ press wasn’t a factor.
The Bulldogs shot 57 percent in the first half, including 6-of-9 beyond the arc. Bobby Portis (15 points) was the only player keeping Arkansas in the game in the first half. Georgia, on the other hand, got contributions from all over.
But when Arkansas rallied in the second half, it was without Portis on the floor. For a while, Georgia’s lead careened from four to 10, but when Portis came out for a rest, his supporting cast finally woke up. Anthlon Bell hit a series of jumpers to make it a one-point game, and the jumpers kept falling for the Razorbacks.
The deficit eventually grew to six. Georgia closed it to two a couple times, including with four seconds left. But Arkansas’ Bell nailed two free throws to ice it.
“That was like an NCAA tournament game,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “That was a high-level game right there. And both teams got after it. But they made more plays than we did.”
Djurisic (16 points and seven rebounds) led the way for Georgia, which didn’t get its usual contributions from junior guards Charles Mann (eight points and four turnovers) and Kenny Gaines (10 points).
The opening stretch of SEC doesn’t get much easier for the Bulldogs, who have to go to LSU on Saturday. Losing to Arkansas, which looks like an NCAA team, shouldn’t be a blot on Georgia’s resume, but with an improved SEC, wins could be more scarce.
So this was one that got away, and that hurt.
“You’ve got to be able to emotionally let one go and move on to the next one,” Fox said. “That’s what we’re gonna have to do. Certainly there’s going to be a lot of slugfests throughout SEC play and we’ve gotta be mature enough to move beyond this one and get ready for the next one.”