ATLANTA -- It might end up that, once again, Georgia has a better season than Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs have more starters back, were picked to finish eight spots higher in their conference and entered this season with an air of legitimate hope.
But once again it was the Yellow Jackets, despite the instability and uncertainty swirling around them, who were better for one night.
Georgia Tech ran away early, then held on late for an 80-73 win in both team’s season opener Friday night.
“For a year we get to say what we wanna say, I guess,” Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory said.
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It has been that way for four years now. That itself is a bitter fact for Georgia, considered by experts an NCAA tournament contender. Georgia Tech was picked to finish 13th in the ACC, with Gregory’s job perhaps on the line this year.
But the bigger worry for Georgia is the reason it didn’t make the NCAA tournament the past two years was awful non-conference seasons: 6-6 last year, 6-7 the year before. And an opening loss is not setting the right tone that this year will be different.
“We’ve just gotta remember that November is what killed us last year,” Georgia guard Kenny Gaines said. “We’ve just gotta get as many games in November as we can. We’ve got a tougher schedule this year, but I think we’re prepared for it.”
Head coach Mark Fox was noticeably upset after the game but did not use the game as a harbinger of things to come.
“I’m confident in my team,” Fox said. “We’ve got a harder schedule than we’ve probably ever had. We have a good team. I’m not gonna panic because we lost the game. We got outplayed. We gotta get better at certain things.”
That would include stopping the other team’s hot 3-point shooter. Quinton Stephens hit six 3-pointers, seemingly all of them at crucial times.
Georgia Tech led by as many as 16 in the first half, propelled by a 16-3 run. Georgia rallied several times in the second half, getting within four and six at different points. But Stephens often had an answer, and then the Bulldogs didn’t have one.
Georgia led once, 5-4, after a Nemanja Djurisic 3. But relying on the 3 ended up being the Bulldogs’ downfall, as they tried 16 of them in the first half, making only four. They only tried five in the second half, when they ended up out-scoring the Yellow Jackets by four.
“We just got 3-happy,” Gaines said. “They were playing hard defensively, and I feel like we backed out of going into the paint for some easy buckets.”
“We were very impatient and we didn’t look like we were in rhythm and comfortable in the first half,” Georgia guard Charles Mann said. “And it showed.”
The Bulldogs return the core of their team from last year, when they excelled by getting to the foul line and getting transition points. They got back to that in the second half, but the mistakes of the first half proved decisive.
“The difference in the game was our inability to do something besides settling for the 3-point shot early, and Quinton Stephens making 3-point shots,” Fox said. “It took us a long time, really all the way until halftime, before we could calm down and throw the ball inside to make some plays,” Fox said.
Georgia did draw within three points in the final minute, after a 3 by Gaines and a layup by J.J. Frazier. The Yellow Jackets answered by hitting free throws, cinching it up.
Djurisic led Georgia with 18 points. The problem for Georgia was not getting enough from its two leading scorers from last year. Gaines only had 11, and Mann was held to nine, going 3-for-11 from the field.
Gaines was limited to 18 minutes after dealing with mononucleosis the past month. He missed three weeks of practice and still isn’t in his best shape.
“He’s the only guy on our team who has an excuse for not playing well,” Fox said.
Both teams now have a few home games against non-high major teams, which figure to be a little less tense. Georgia Tech looked like a pretty cohesive team despite all its transfers and new players.
Georgia has three straight home games (Stony Brook, Troy, Florida Atlantic) before the meat of that challenging non-conference schedule hits: Gonzaga, St. John’s or Minnesota, at Chattonooga, Colorado, Seton Hall, Mercer and at Kansas State.
It’s a chance to atone for this loss, but only if it plays much better.
“We’ve got 30 games left. You’re not gonna win them all,” Mann said. “But we’ll be ready to fight and we’ll be ready to play Tuesday. We’ll bounce back.”