AUBURN, Ala. — This could have been, indeed should have been, the week that Georgia put a bow on its strong conference start and showed it would stay in the upper tier of the SEC.
Instead, as head coach Mark Fox leaned against a wall at Auburn Arena on Saturday afternoon, his team having lost 74-67 to the last-place team in the conference, Fox knew his team had taken a step back this week.
“We’re not the most confident group,” Fox said. “But we’ve gotta be tough enough to deal with a loss and react to it.”
Behind the scenes, the coach was apparently less diplomatic.
“He was pretty upset,” guard Kenny Gaines said. “We lost two games this week which we should’ve won, I feel.”
Georgia (now 10-10 overall) began SEC play 4-1, finding itself tied for second place. A loss at Kentucky last week wasn’t surprising. But then the Bulldogs lost at home to Vanderbilt and at Auburn, two teams that had losing conference records.
Not only did the Bulldogs lose both games, but they trailed for most of both games. And unlike the Vanderbilt loss, the absence of Gaines couldn’t be blamed at Auburn. He played, although not very well (nine points on 2-of-10 shooting.)
The discouraging thing for Georgia on Saturday was that it failed on both ends:
In the first half, it was their offense, a continuation of the problems the past two games. At one point, the Bulldogs were 3-for-15 from the field with seven turnovers. They trailed 33-25 at halftime.
“We were just lethargic,” freshman guard J.J. Frazier said. “We weren’t playing with any effort, no intensity. So their defense was better than our offense. That’s what killed us in the first half, plus turnovers. We tried to clean that up but it wasn’t enough.”
In the second half the offense improved, but the defense folded. Auburn was able to shoot 46 percent and answer each time Georgia made a run.
“We haven’t been playing well and rebounding and playing defense like we did at the beginning of the year,” said point guard Charles Mann, who led Georgia with 18 points. “We’ve got to get better at playing well on the defensive end in order to win games.”
Even so, Georgia was within striking distance late, whittling a 13-point lead down to two, thanks mostly to Frazier.
The point guard provided a spark off the bench, including a steal-and-assist to make it a three-point game, then a 3-pointer to make it a two-point game.
But down the stretch Georgia — helped in its comeback by tight officiating — was undone by the tight officiating.
Twice in the final two minutes Auburn got to the free throw line on calls that had Fox apoplectic on the sideline. The most critical was with 34 seconds left, when Auburn’s lead was three, and a foul was called as the shot clock expired.
“It was pretty frustrating,” Gaines said. “We felt like we played pretty good defense and then to see they called a foul after 35 seconds of playing good defense, it is kind of frustrating.”
Fox said he couldn’t comment on specific calls. He did acknowledge that his team didn’t take enough advantage at the line, going 19-for-28, while Auburn was 27-for-34.
“The difference ended up being the free-throw line. We sent them there way too much,” Fox said. “And they shot their free throws well. We didn’t shoot ours as well, and we didn’t get there as much. We didn’t get off to a good start, so we played from behind. But ultimately the foul line killed us.”
Early on, it seemed Fox’s strategy was to wear out Auburn, which was coming off an emotional win over Alabama less than 48 hours before. So Fox made liberal use of his bench early, using 11 players in the first seven minutes.
The most surprising move was a start for Houston Kessler, a redshirt freshman who had never started a game. In fact, Kessler had only appeared in seven games this year, not scoring, and totaling just 15 minutes.
Kessler nailed a 3-pointer for Georgia’s first points. Then he left after playing three minutes and didn’t play again.
“He’s a freshman behind many upperclassmen, but I wasn’t pleased with our upperclassmen’s response the other day,” Fox said. “I put Houston in there, and he did a nice job while he was in there.”
Georgia’s next game is Thursday, at home against LSU, a resurgent team that just beat Kentucky.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have gone from a team that seemed to have found its identity, to one that is back to square one.
“We’ve gotta get back in the winning column,” Gaines said. “We’re 4-4 now. And this isn’t where we wanna be, but we’ve still gotta keep fighting.”
Mann sounded a more confident note.
“We’ll be fine. We’ll bounce back,” Mann said. “We faced adversity earlier in the season. So we’ll be fine. We’ll find a way to bounce back.”