ATHENS — There was no drama this time. In a Georgia basketball season that has seen so much drama, so many close finishes and perhaps the biggest game looming, there was an air of nonchalance about this one.
And that was a good thing. The Bulldogs could not afford another embarrassing home loss, and they ended any chance of that very early. The final result was a 68-44 victory over Missouri that further solidified Georgia’s NCAA tournament hopes and sent the Bulldogs into Tuesday’s showdown with Kentucky on a good note.
“We had to win this game,” senior Nemanja Djurisic said.
Georgia (19-9, 10-6 SEC) now has double-digit SEC wins in consecutive seasons for only the second time in program history. The other time was 2001-02 under Jim Harrick. And while these two seasons came in an 18-game SEC schedule, Georgia got to 10 wins at the 16-game mark each season.
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“For me, the goal was to make this program competitive and healthy,” said head coach Mark Fox, who is in his sixth year and for a second Saturday talked about his seventh year. “We’ve only got two seniors; we’ve got a good team coming back. In the grand scheme of things, I’m proud of our players for putting us in that position, because they make all the baskets. Hopefully we can continue to build on it and add to it.”
Georgia is also assured of at least a .500 record in SEC play for the third straight season, the first time since 2001-03 the program has achieved that.
Fox’s SEC record is now at 50-50. No Georgia basketball coach whose tenure lasted at least five seasons has ever finished with a winning SEC record.
That includes Hugh Durham, who was in the building Saturday and spoke to the Bulldogs at Fox’s request on Friday night. Georgia honored some of its past teams, all coached by Durham, and former players Litterial Green, Jarvis Hayes and others were present, as was the late Alec Kessler’s widow.
This Georgia team did the program proud Saturday.
It was evident from the start that Georgia had the focus and energy it lacked the previous two home losses. It was getting loose balls, blocking shots, dominating the glass and running all over the court.
Those were all things the Bulldogs failed to do in their two previous home games, when they were stunned by Auburn and South Carolina, two of the SEC’s three worst teams. But after two big road wins put the Bulldogs back on track, they kept the roll going against the SEC’s worst team.
Senior Marcus Thornton answered “absolutely” when asked if the team’s previous two home performances loomed in the players’ mind before this one.
“It was a definite emphasis for us to just go out, play hard and compete as soon as the ball was tipped up,” Thornton said. “So we did that, and we executed fairly well, so we were able to be successful.”
Georgia’s previous largest margin of victory in SEC play was only 12 over Florida. In fact, the Bulldogs’ last true blowout win occurred Dec. 21, a 17-point win over Seton Hall.
Missouri (8-21, 2-14) offered up a chance to stomp an opponent, and Georgia finally did so. It led by as many as 20 in the first half, then extended that lead to 24 early in the second half. It grew to 28 when Cameron Forte threw down a fastbreak dunk, after a steal and assist from Frazier.
The rest of the game was different, with Georgia’s production slowing down but Missouri failing to do anything about it. At one point, Georgia went seven possessions without scoring and still led by 22.
The final 24-point margin of victory was Georgia’s largest in SEC play since the 2002-03 season.
Nemanja Djurisic carried the Bulldogs early, picking up from his hot shooting at Mississippi. Then J.J. Frazier, who had struggled the past few games because of injuries, got back to his old form, hitting 3s and racking up assists.
“We felt like we let our fans down in the last two (home) games,” Frazier said. “They’ve been supporting us all year, and we laid two eggs. We just wanted to play as hard as we can and protect our home court again.”
Juwan Parker also returned to action after missing the previous 11 games with an Achilles injury. The sophomore, who started the first 13 games of the season, checked in with 4:05 to play, receiving a nice ovation from the fans.
It was a further sign that Georgia is rounding into form at just the right time. Whether it will be enough against Kentucky, however, will be much discussed the next three days.
“We don’t know how good we can be, because we haven’t been healthy,” Frazier said. “And it feels good to know we have more potential to tap and get to.”