ATHENS -- It was Nemanja Djurisic, the Georgia junior forward, who exchanged an emotional hug with his head coach Mark Fox on Wednesday night. The picture was widely circulated after Georgia’s stunning win at No. 21 Missouri, symbolizing Fox’s emotions, just days after the death of his father.
“Three seconds left, I saw him crying, and I was waiting for the time to go up to him and hug him and share the moment to him,” Djurisic said. “Because I knew how much it meant to him, and to us, to get the win against such an opponent.”
Two days later, Djurisic had dispensed with the hugging and was in a more feisty mood.
“People didn’t think we were gonna win one game,” Djurisic said. “I think we proved you wrong and anybody else.”
Georgia was expected by many to finish near the bottom of the SEC standings. It appeared to be a justified feeling after the team’s 6-6 nonconference performance.
The win at Missouri could change that, but only if the Bulldogs can build on it. For instance, losing Saturday to Alabama, which is only 7-7, would derail a lot of Georgia’s newfound confidence.
That’s why multiple players said Friday they already had “flushed” the win away. Fox, who said he was pleased with his team’s approach in Thursday’s practice, said he would see if his team “is mature enough to handle success.”
It’s been a whirlwind week for Fox, whose father passed away last weekend, just after Georgia’s 18-point loss at George Washington. Fox attended the funeral Tuesday, a day before the Missouri game. His father had also been a basketball coach, in Kansas.
“We knew what he was going through,” sophomore guard Charles Mann said. “We were by his side throughout the process. We sent him text messages, encouraging him, telling him, ‘Keep your head up Coach.’ ”
As the game ended, Fox broke down on the bench. That night and the next day, he heard well-wishes from U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt and some of his father’s former players. The story was also written about in USA Today.
Looking back, Fox said Friday he felt “a little embarrassed” about the attention it all received.
“It became too much a story about that,” Fox said. “It should have been about the team.”
The easy story would have been that the Bulldogs won one for their coach, but Fox said he didn’t think there was much about that going on, and the players echoed that.
“Of course with his loss we wanted to win for him, but we wanted to win for the team and just start off the SEC good, undefeated, with a win,” Mann said. “And it just gets our confidence up.”
“I was emotional. I’m not sure our team was,” Fox said. “Our team was happy we won. But I was the only one who was super emotional. But it is something we can look back on and draw from and hopefully build on.”
So what did click for Georgia before the win? There were a couple of theories floating around the team.
Mann said it was just a matter of staying in the game and believing. Georgia jumped out to an 8-0 lead, and as the game went on and Missouri continued to put up rallies, Georgia kept answering. Gradually, the confidence level on the team increased.
“We knew we were a great team; we just didn’t have much confidence because we hadn’t really beat a team like that this year,” Mann said. “We just kept on believing, ‘We’re gonna get this one; we’re gonna get this one.’ ”
Fox thought his key players rose to the occasion. Before the game he reminded them that December of last season was when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope took his game to the level that he was eventually named the SEC player of the year.
“We’ve got sophomores playing big roles, and I said, ‘It’s about time you guys take a step forward,’ ” Fox said. “Charles definitely did, and Kenny (Gaines) and Brandon (Morris) made their share of plays also. So maybe that’s part of it. But we just keep trying to get better, and we finally saw the results of some daily effort.”
Now the key for the Bulldogs is keeping it going. A loss at home to Alabama cancels out the win over Missouri. But a win Saturday makes the Bulldogs 2-0 in SEC play and makes things interesting.
“You don’t wanna keep celebrating and then forget that (Saturday) Alabama is gonna want to beat us,” senior forward Donte Williams said.