NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did everything he could in the second half, nearly leading his team to an amazing 23-point comeback. In the end, however, his shot and Georgia's comeback was too short.
Georgia fell to LSU, 68-63, on Thursday in the SEC tournament, thus ending the Bulldogs' season. Caldwell-Pope scored a career-high 32 points, including 25 in the second half as the Bulldogs went from 20 down at halftime to having a chance to tie it at the end.
But Caldwell-Pope's long shot with 11 seconds left hit off the front of the rim.
"We really fought back courageously," Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. "But we just can't wait that late in the game to start playing like that."
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Georgia finishes its season 15-17, the sixth time in the past eight seasons the program has not finished with a winning record. LSU moved on to face top-seeded Florida in Friday's quarterfinals.
LSU started 5-of-6 from beyond the arc, jumping out to a 21-9 lead. Georgia was struggling to get off good shots, and Caldwell-Pope’s first open 3 clanged off the rim. LSU averaged only seven 3-pointers game in SEC play, so it cooled off.
But Georgia somehow played worse.
The Bulldogs committed nine turnovers in the first half, including seven in the first 11 minutes. That included some pretty ill-advised passes not very close to the basket, which allowed the Tigers quick breakaway baskets.
The Bulldogs went 9:45 without a field goal, during which the lead expanded to 23 points. Caldwell-Pope finally ended the run with a 3-pointer with a minute left.
Georgia's defense wasn't much better, forcing just two turnovers in the pivotal first half. Once LSU's 3-point shooting cooled, the Tigers were able to get a ton of points inside, and the game quickly got away from the Bulldogs.
When the lead grew to 14, Fox called timeout. It didn't work, as the lead soon was 18.
When yet another turnover led to an LSU breakaway and a 20-point lead, Fox just collapsed in his chair. A minute later the lead grew to 23. Fox again collapsed in his chair and threw up his hands.
"We thought we had energy when they showed up for breakfast today," Fox said, admitting he was bewildered by how his team came out.
“We laid down the first half,” Caldwell-Pope said. “They just out-physicaled us, were pushing us around a lot. We had to fight back or just lie down. We chose to fight back. I love my teammates.”
Caldwell-Pope did everything he could to get Georgia back into it. The star guard had 14 points in the first seven minutes, and another 3-pointer, which cut it to 13 with 13:14 left, caused LSU to call timeout.
"He's a great competitor," Fox said of his star player. "He embodies what athletes should be. He just competes with a heart of a lion. He's the hardest worker we have in practice. He plays really hard. ... He competed and he tried to lead his team back, and I thought he made a lot of admirable plays."
The lead dwindled to 10 after yet another Caldwell-Pope 3. But Georgia also wasted some chances, with put-back attempts by Kenny Gaines and John Florveus failing.
The Bulldogs cut it to nine on a Mann 3-pointer with 6:15 left. Then Caldwell-Pope cut it to seven on two free throws with 3:59 left.
Then Caldwell-Pope drilled a long 3 to make it 63-59 with 2:25 left.
And with 1:06 left Mann was fouled on a breakaway, sending him to the line. He drilled both, and it was a two-point game.
Then came the heartbreaker: Andre Stinger nailed a 3, LSU's first points in five minutes. It was back to a five-point game.
When LSU's O'Bryant missed two free throws, Georgia had one more chance. Fox called timeout with 21.8 seconds left, his team down three.
But Caldwell-Pope settled for a long 3 from about 23 feet, with 10 seconds left. It was short, and LSU rebounded.
“I didn't shoot it straight up and down,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I was leaning a little bit on the shot. It was well contested and I just didn't create any space, just to get an open shot.”
Fox declined to criticize the shot.
"He's earned the right to take any shot he wants," Fox said. "He just missed the shot. He's made a lot of them for us. He just missed that one."