Georgia could have folded. As head coach Mark Fox said, the bubble probably burst for this team after Wednesday’s loss to Auburn. The easy way out would have been for the Bulldogs, who had lofty expectations in November, to let the season run its course and take an early exit to the offseason.
Georgia chose not to go that route.
Behind an inspired performance from its top contributors, Georgia defeated Mississippi 80-66 on Saturday. No, it won’t help Georgia somehow climb back into the at-large conversation for the NCAA Tournament. But it served as a good reminder to anyone watching to never quit, even when the outlook appears bleak.
“I’m always going to believe in my dudes,” junior guard J.J. Frazier said. “We’re never going to quit. We’re never going to feel we’re out of any situation, no matter how big the mountain may look to other people. We know what we have inside of us, we know what we have as a unit. I love my dudes and we’re going to fight to the end.”
Frazier led Georgia (15-12, 8-8 SEC) in scoring with 26 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Frazier sank 5-of-8 3-pointer attempts, with two huge ones going through the hoop in the second half to help lengthen Georgia’s lead over the Mississippi (18-11, 8-8). Frazier’s play began to pick up around with 14 minutes left to play in the game, which came after senior guard Kenny Gaines’ brilliant performance to open the game. Frazier said he wanted to step his level of play up for Gaines, since the senior guard had done so much for the team to that point.
Gaines made 4-of-6 3-pointers in the first half and ended the game with 23 points. From the onset, Gaines appeared to be on a mission — his shot was falling from the beginning, and he took the ball to the basket strong on occasion. His defense on Mississippi guard Stefan Moody helped set the stage of the game, given that he kept a 23-points-per-game player to 15.
Heads were held low after Georgia’s loss to Auburn earlier in the week, considering the at-large possibilities had all but vanished. Even so, that’s not enough to get a senior such as Gaines to sulk as his collegiate career nears an end.
“As a team, we love each other as brothers,” Gaines said. “We told ourselves we would never stop fighting for each other. It’s mine and (senior guard) Charles (Mann’s) last couple of games in college. As a team, they’re putting it on our backs, saying, ‘We’re not going to quit on our seniors.’ It’s in our character not to quit. We take after our coach. Coach Fox never quit on us so there’s no need to quit on him.”
Fox figured his team, which has featured a veteran backcourt and a young frontcourt, would improve during the course of the season. In some ways it has. In others, it never did develop into the kind of team that would make it easy on itself to earn a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
Following 34-point losses to both Texas A&M and Kentucky, Fox was critical of his team’s lack of response when hit with a proverbial punch in the mouth from an opponent. After Georgia’s win over Mississippi, it appears the Bulldogs are beginning to learn how to respond.
“The one thing about this team is we felt this group would continue to get better,” Fox said. “You’re going to have bumps in the road. It just happens in college basketball. We didn’t play well enough to win (against Auburn) and we learned from it. Their approach to the adversity, I was pleased with it.”
Frazier elected to keep any discussions following the Auburn game with his teammates in-house. Both Gaines and forward Yante Maten said the message to one another was simple – to keep fighting and play for one another.
Georgia knows where it stands at this stage of the season. It’s lone chance at the NCAA Tournament is to win the SEC Tournament in two weeks. Crazier things have happened in college basketball so it’s not like the task is impossible.
And with that in mind, the Bulldogs aren’t planning to back down as long as games on the schedule remain to be played.
“We’re going to keep fighting regardless of the situation,” Maten said. “As long as there are games left we’re going to keep giving it our all and hope we have another night where we’re all playing at our peaks.”