Georgia clinches third place — but still has company

semerson@macon.comMarch 5, 2014 

ATHENS -- Mark Fox was disgusted. Before the ball was even through the basket, the head coach stomped on to the court and signaled for a timeout, motioning for his Georgia men’s basketball team to gather around him.

Georgia was leading by 19.

“There’s a certain way that we should play the game,” said Fox, who wasn’t happy that Kenny Gaines had, in his mind, showboated an alley-oop for the basket with 9:30 to play. “Now that we’ve had some success we must learn how to have success and how to handle it. So that was just a quick reminder.”

“It was a little flashy pass, but it got to him, and he finished the play,” Gaines said, smiling.

He added in the huddle that Fox said, “Make sure we get the win. Soundly. Let’s just make sure we finish out strong.”

It was the latest example of how things have changed around this Georgia team, which in easing by Mississippi State 66-45 on Wednesday night chalked up more milestones:

• Georgia (17-12, 11-6 SEC) clinched at least a share of third place in the final SEC standings. It’s the first time since 2003 that Georgia has finished with the third best conference record. That season was vacated, so officially it’s the first time since 1996.

• It’s also the first time since 2003 that Georgia won 11 SEC games, although that was with a 16-game schedule. Officially it’s first time since 1990 the Bulldogs have won 11 games.

• The 21-point win was the seventh double-digit win for Georgia in SEC play this season (it was the fourth by at least 15 points). By comparison, Georgia only won six games in non-conference play, which is why this SEC run is for naught when it comes to making the NCAA tournament as an at-large contender.

Still, third place is third place. Now it’s just a matter of whether the Bulldogs will have to share it.

The top four teams get the coveted double-bye into the SEC tournament quarterfinals. The third seed is looking vitally important because it means not having to face Florida -- the No. 1 ranked team in the country -- until the championship game.

Arkansas and Tennessee both won Wednesday and remained a game behind Georgia. Those two teams hold the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs. So in order to get one of the SEC’s top four seeds Georgia will have to win at LSU on Saturday or get Arkansas or Tennessee to lose Saturday. Arkansas is at Alabama, and Tennessee hosts Missouri.

“We’re in third place by ourselves; we’ve got a share of third place secured. And now we’ll focus on the next game,” Fox said. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”

There was never much danger for Georgia on Wednesday. Mississippi State (13-17, 3-14) is the last-place team in the SEC, and Georgia won by 20 in Starkville a month ago.

This time Georgia started slow again, finding itself down 16-8. The Bulldogs were just flat, starting 2-for-13 from the field and 1-for-6 from the free throw line and committing some silly turnovers.

“Mississippi State started the game with a greater determination than we did. We were a little bit sluggish in everything that we did to start the game,” Fox said. “I was concerned about how ready we would be, but it wasn’t anything I said. They just decided to start playing a little better.”

It was a 21-4 run that put Georgia ahead. And Gaines was on the end of an alley-oop play that Fox approved.

After a Mississippi State turnover with five seconds remaining in the half, Georgia point guard Charles Mann streaked downcourt. He thought for a moment about hoisting a shot near the 3-point line, but then lobbed it towards the basket, and Gaines threw it home as the clock ran out.

“I’d have to say that was the first time to practice it,” Gaines said. “It turned out pretty well.”

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