TAMPA, Fla. — This time, there were no miracles.
There were no game-winning shots at the buzzer. There were no heroic performances from seniors desperately grasping for anything to prolong their careers. There were no tornadoes to sweep away the ghosts of a lost season and bring about a new energy that would carry a downtrodden program to its greatest heights.
None of what made last season’s SEC tournament championship possible was on display in Georgia’s 79-60 opening-round loss to Mississippi State on Thursday, and in the end, the only silver lining was that the season was finally, mercifully over.
“We’re sorry for it to end, but things happen, and life goes on,” said Trey Thompkins, who finished with 12 points. “We have to readjust and make the adjustments we need for next year.”
Georgia wrapped up a 12-20 campaign with a performance that was emblematic of its season as a whole. Mississippi State shot 51 percent from the field, while Georgia fumbled away opportunities with a bevy of turnovers and allowed backup Kodi Augustus to score a career-high 19 points in just 17 minutes of action.
Mississippi State led by 14 at halftime, but Georgia climbed back to within five with 15:13 remaining in the game. As quickly as the momentum had turned in its favor, however, Georgia threw it away, turning the ball over on its next four possessions. Mississippi State responded with a 13-2 run, including 3-pointers by Augustus and Barry Stewart, that effectively sealed the win.
Afterward, interim coach Pete Herrmann hugged each player as the game, the season and likely his career at Georgia came to an end. He was sad to say goodbye, but it concluded a painful six weeks of work as the replacement for his friend Dennis Felton, who was fired as head coach midway through the season.
Herrmann worked hard to keep Georgia’s locker room from splintering during his tenure, with mixed results. The Bulldogs managed three wins — their only victories in SEC play — in their final seven regular-season games but offered dismal performances between each minor step forward.
“With the loss of Coach Felton, that was tough for everybody, and it kind of seemed like it was downhill from there,” said senior forward Terrance Woodbury, who led Georgia with 14 points Thursday. “We tried our best to keep our enthusiasm, but it’s hard once you lose your head coach and then you lose a lot of games on top of that.”
The identity of Felton’s replacement remains unlikely to be solved for a few weeks at the earliest. What his replacement will have to work with was equally unclear after the game.
Thompkins said he plans to return next season, but center Albert Jackson said a number of Georgia’s players have discussed transferring, regardless of who the school brings in as the next head coach.
Sophomores Zac Swansey and Jeremy Price both saw their playing time diminish significantly following Felton’s dismissal, and Price was benched for one game following a skirmish with freshman Travis Leslie. Meanwhile, Leslie missed the final two weeks of the season to concentrate on his studies after finding himself in danger of losing his academic eligibility.
“I’m not 100 percent sure that I want to be here,” Swansey told TotalUGA.com after the game. “I want to play, and I want to be with a program that wins. I’m not sure Georgia is that program.”
Jackson, who will be Georgia’s lone senior next season, said he plans to gather what remains of his team next week to formulate a game plan until the next coach arrives and to offer a last attempt at selling players on the Bulldogs’ system.
“I’ve always been taught that in adverse situations, you don’t run,” Jackson said. “My mama never let me quit. I’m going to tell them that I feel like if you leave, you’re quitting. You came to Georgia for a reason, and the goal you were striving for, that’s not over. Some guys might have already decided they’re leaving, but I’m going to tell them I want them all back following me my senior year.”
While Jackson was already making plans for next year, Georgia’s current crop of seniors, Woodbury and Corey Butler, was left to explain what had happened this season.
The two players sat at a podium to address the scant few media members still recording the depths of Georgia’s misery, and the first question posed summed up the season. Were they glad it was over?
Butler, a walk-on who worked his way into the starting lineup after four years, a player who will head to medical school after he graduates, was unwavering in his response.
A year ago, Georgia was able to celebrate at the end of an arduous journey. This season, Butler said, the journey had been its own reward.
“I think it’s one of the greatest growing experiences that any collegiate athlete is going to have,” Butler said. “You can be North Carolina and make it to the national championship and win, and you’re not going to have the growing experience we had this year. I take it as a learning experience, and now there’s nothing that can stop me from doing anything I want to do in this world.”