In the previous two regular-season matchups with Kentucky, Georgia has fallen just short after holding a lead in the game’s final moments. Sunday night’s result at Rupp Arena was eerily similar, but one that reaped some positives for the Bulldogs.
Georgia head coach Mark Fox saw his team’s eight-point lead dissipate as it fell to the SEC power Wildcats, 66-61. The Bulldogs know that it must finish in late-game situations in order to prosper in coherence play, and the lack of doing so plagued them a season ago.
Rather than the pattern continuing into the 2018 SEC slate, Georgia believes it saw growth and is progressing towards playing a complete 40-minute contest.
“We didn’t get the job done, but it let us know as a team that we can play with the best,” Bulldogs’ senior forward Yante Maten said. “We took it as a learning step, but know we have to improve offensively and defensively.”
Georgia will now get to put that learning experience to the test Wednesday night against Mississippi (6:30 p.m., SEC Network) — a Rebels team that won its conference opener over South Carolina.
The makeup of Ole Miss’ roster is different than in past seasons as a bulk of its scoring isn’t predicated upon one player — Marshall Henderson or Stefan Moody, for example. Instead, head coach Andy Kennedy’s group is balanced and features three different guards that average double-digit scoring (DeAndre Burnett leads the way at 14.7 points per game).
At 7 feet, Dominick Olejniczak also provides a matchup that Georgia’s bigs look forward to. But a bulk of the concern is in regards to the Bulldogs’ backcourt defense, and it’s something Fox is pleased with.
Kentucky featured a similar dynamic in regards to multiple guards that can produce, and Georgia held its own by allowing 66 points. A key play regarding Turtle Jackson, however, raised the need for improvement in one area.
“I spent an enormous amount of time evaluating Turtle’s fourth foul of the game,” Fox said. “That was a critical play … critical play. It really had a huge impact on the game. Evaluating how to avoid foul trouble (by the guards) is important for us.”
After falling in the conference opener, Georgia has the opportunity to play back-to-back contests at Stegeman Coliseum before traveling to Missouri on Jan. 10.
The first of two, based on recent history, will almost certainly be a close contest. Aside from last season’s outlier (a 69-47 win for the Bulldogs in Oxford), each contest between Kennedy and Fox has come down to the final moments.
“The SEC is definitely improved, and it’s fun to play against such great competition,” Maten said. “That’s what you look forward to; playing the best. We’re excited as a team to move forward.”
Added Fox: “This league is as deep as it’s ever been and there will be 18 extremely-difficult games.”
Georgia has a sole focus as conference play begins — not allowing one loss to evolve into a bad stretch of games. Last season, the Bulldogs fell victim to it on multiple occasions — most notably falling to Alabama at home after a late loss at Texas A&M — and know what it takes in order to avoid it becoming a pattern.
“We have to keep that same mentality,” center Derek Ogbeide said. “We have to go through things we’ve missed and take care of mistakes. All of the right things.”