ATHENS — Georgia had gone all season without a truly bad loss, one that would be a blot on its resume.
It was trending toward one for a while, however, and on Saturday, that finally caught up with the Bulldogs.
Auburn, a short-handed team with a losing record, played better from start to finish to stun Georgia on its home floor, 69-68.
Georgia missed a chance at an improbable win, after being down four in the final seconds. Kenny Gaines hit a 3 to make it a one-point game, then Auburn overthrew the inbounds, giving Georgia the ball under Auburn’s basket with 1.8 seconds left.
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But Nemanja Djurisic’s 3-point attempt was well short. Auburn, which entered as an 11-point underdog, celebrated its upset. Georgia absorbed the hit.
“We just got exactly what we deserved,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “I warned them. I warned them (Friday) at shootaround. We’ve been smelling ourselves too much.”
It was a stinging loss for Georgia (16-8, 7-5 SEC), essentially canceling out its impressive win Wednesday at Texas A&M. The Bulldogs are still in decent shape for an NCAA tournament bid, but this loss gives them a lot more work to do going forward.
“They just came out and played harder than we did,” Gaines said. “We were kind of on the defensive side. We weren’t really taking charge of the game the way we should have.”
Georgia entered the game with an RPI rank of 22, while Auburn (13-14, 4-8) was ranked 162. That makes this easily Georgia’s worst loss of the season, the previous one being at South Carolina (RPI rank of 110). But that loss was mitigated by being on the road and when Georgia didn’t have leading scorer Marcus Thornton.
There were such excuses for this one. In fact, the injury excuse was Auburn’s. Starting guard Tajh Shamsid-Deen was ruled out for the season Friday because of a shoulder injury. Antoine Mason, the team’s second-leading scorer, didn’t start but played off the bench after missing practices this week to be with his ailing father.
But Auburn’s KT Harrell (21 points) took over, especially down the stretch, hitting shot after important shot, inexplicably left open by Georgia’s defenders.
“We left the best shooter in the league wide open,” Fox said. “We didn’t finish it. It’s disappointing. But give Auburn credit for outplaying us.”
It was unclear whether the final play call was to get Djurisic the ball. Fox said it was, although “not necessarily in the corner but that side of the floor.”
Gaines was inbounding the ball, a curious decision in itself considering he had a team-high 18 points and had just nailed the 3. Gaines said the plan was to “hit whoever was open and try to get a shot off.” It went to Djurisic, after a few seconds of trying to get the ball in.
“He was the only one who had a chance to get open,” Gaines said.
Three days earlier, the Bulldogs had scored one of their best wins of the season, on the road against a top-50 RPI team. It cemented the idea that Georgia will have to collapse the final month in order to not get an NCAA bid.
Now Georgia’s margin for error is smaller.
“We better get hungry again,” Fox said. “Didn’t like our determination (Saturday). Didn’t like it all week, honestly.”
Auburn led most of the first half as Georgia sputtered around, missing layups and other close shots. It started 5-for-20 from the field, missing 15 shots inside the 3-point line. Then the Bulldogs pulled ahead with a 9-0 run late in the half, only to have Harrell drain a jumper at the buzzer for a 29-28 Auburn halftime lead.
“Georgia is tremendously solid, and they are built to beat teams that are bigger,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “They’re built to beat a more traditional team. They don’t have great quickness or depth. So when they play against someone that’s a little smaller, there are teams that they can beat that we can’t come close to beating. But it wasn’t an easy matchup for them, because we spread it out and shot the ball and executed our stuff.”
Still, Georgia led by nine with 5:08 left, but then the Bulldogs allowed a critical offensive rebound. After Auburn’s Cinmeon Bowwers missed the second of two free throws, Harrell got under the basket for the rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws, and Auburn’s comeback was on.
“We played a really good team, a really good Georgia team, and we just came out here and fought,” Harrell said. “Coach has been doing a really good job of just telling us to never stop and to never quit, and we did that.”