ATHENS -- In a long season, basketball players are conditioned not to place one game over another, especially not one in the first half of a conference schedule.
And yet it was clear, after Georgia’s 91-78 win over LSU on Thursday night, that the Bulldogs knew this game held a little bit more importance, for the future of their season and their own psyche.
“It was very important for us,” forward Nemanja Djurisic said. “Mentally, for our confidence.”
Said forward Marcus Thornton, “I felt like we were due. We worked hard this week, and I felt like we were due, based off of last week.”
It was a critical victory for Georgia (11-10 overall, 5-4 in the SEC), which entered with a three-game losing streak and was in danger of seeing its season careen away.
Instead, the Bulldogs knocked off what had been a surging LSU team, and they played very well doing it.
Georgia led wire-to-wire and had its second-most points of the season. If not for 14 missed free throws, the game would have been a rout.
In short, Georgia looked nothing like the team that last week lost at home to Vanderbilt and at Auburn.
“As we build our team, our program, you have to have belief in yourself. You have to have belief through adversity,” head coach Mark Fox said. “We had a tough 10 days where we didn’t play very well, and we stuck it out, hung together, kept getting better, went back to work this week, and we beat a terrific basketball team.”
Georgia is not going to the NCAA tournament, barring a miracle next month. But the Bulldogs are having their own effect on what the bracket might look like.
First it won at Missouri, and since then it has also knocked off Arkansas and LSU, all teams that are harboring NCAA hopes, fainter hopes after losing to Georgia.
LSU (14-7, 5-4) was good enough to beat Kentucky last week. But it caught Georgia on a night in which it appeared locked in, jumping out to an 8-1 lead, then answering each LSU rally.
Georgia shot 60 percent from the floor, easily its best shooting night of the season. The scoring was spread out: Six players had at least eight points, four in double figures. When LSU went to a press, the Bulldogs overcame it, moving the ball well and showing patience until the best shot was there. Or they were fouled.
“We were a sound basketball team (Thursday),” Djurisic said. “We played together. We played through change of the (LSU) defense, played through the press.”
“I felt like Tuesday we practiced as well as we had in quite awhile,” Fox said. “I felt like we were really starting to get a rhythm together.”
It also helped that LSU’s best player, junior forward Johnny O’Bryant, was in constant foul trouble.
He only played four minutes in the first half, and the Bulldogs led by 13 at halftime. When he returned to the floor for the second half, the Tigers rallied to within three. Then O’Bryant picked up his fourth foul, on a driving layup by Charles Mann to make it a five-point game. O’Bryant left the game again, and soon Georgia was back up 10.
“Obviously his foul trouble was key for us, because we were able to build a lead when he was on the bench,” Fox said. “He’s a terrific player.”
There was one scary moment midway through the second half: Mann, Georgia’s leading scorer, hit the floor hard after a layup attempt was blocked, and he stayed down for about a minute.
“I thought he was gonna be fine. He hits the floor a lot,” Thornton said, smiling.
He was fine, eventually returning to the game. But while he was out, his replacement, J.J. Frazier, hit a couple 3-pointers.
It was that kind of night for Georgia, and a much-needed one.
“Every game is important, but this is definitely a key game to get turned around and get going in the right direction,” Thornton said. “So this was big for us.”