ATHENS -- It could have been a crushing loss for Georgia and a glorious win for Mercer.
Instead, it was just another close call for both. Georgia managed to barely avoid losing to an in-state program. And Mercer came oh-so-close again to nabbing a big one against its big brother in Athens.
This time, the Bulldogs needed three overtimes and a little good fortune to turn aside Mercer 86-77 on Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum.
“I thought Mercer played their tails off,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “We’ve played them four times since I’ve been here, and it’s never been easy. Bob Hoffman is such a good coach, and their kids play the right way. We were fortunate to win.”
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The game wasn’t decided until the third extra period, when Georgia finally took control over the exhausted Bears. Kenny Gaines scored nine of his 12 points in the third overtime. He also had 10 rebounds, five assists and only one turnover but got a poor grade from his coach.
“I told him I thought he played awful,” Fox said. “But he’s a tough competitor, and he kept battling.”
Gaines, who finished 5-of-14 from the floor, said, “I just kept shooting. I knew eventually one of them would fall.”
The Bulldogs won their fourth straight game. Georgia is undefeated since Thanksgiving, when it dropped a pair of games at the NIT Season Tipoff in New York.
Mercer trailed by as many as 12 points in the second half but picked away at the Georgia lead thanks to its ability to take advantage of Georgia’s poor shooting from the floor. But the Bears never pulled even until freshman guard Jordan Strawberry hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game at 51 at the end of regulation.
“I saw the guy coming, and I was going to try and pump fake and get him in the air,” Strawberry said. “And when he went in the air, I had a normal shot. I was nervous while it was in the air, but it went in.”
Strawberry finished with a team-high 21 points with six assists. Jestin Lewis added 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting on 3-pointers. Darious Moten scored 11 points before fouling out, and T.J. Hallice had 10 rebounds and two blocked shots.
“Our game plan was good,” Hoffman said. “In the first half, we didn’t do as well as we should, but in the second half, we paid more attention to detail and seized some opportunities. Mercer fans came from everywhere and wanted my guys to experience this win, and we did everything we could.”
Georgia’s top scorer was Charles Mann with 22 points, and he also had six rebounds and five assists. Nemanja Djurisic had 17 points and nine rebounds, and Marcus Thornton had 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.
“They are a great team,” Mann said. “We knew we had our hands full coming into this game, and we didn’t have the greatest mind approach. We were slacking. But they are a great team with great guys and a great post. They have a real bright future.”
Mercer had a chance to win in the first overtime, but Strawberry missed a jumper with four seconds left, and the score remained tied at 62.
The Bears led by two late in the second overtime but could not contain the Bulldogs. With 20 seconds left, Mann threw a pass to Gaines on the baseline, and he dropped it in to tie the game at 72.
The third overtime was all Georgia. Gaines converted a three-point play to open the period and later added a pair of 3-pointers that opened a nine-point lead and essentially ended the game.
“I told them they fought their tails off, they played like champions, and they deserved to win (Saturday) against a really, really good team,” Hoffman said. “It’s just one of those teams that should be in the tournament. I’d be shocked if they weren’t.”
Georgia now has beaten the Bears 18 straight times, a streak that dates back to 1959.