COLUMBIA, S.C. - There was a laundry malfunction for the Georgia men’s basketball team early Saturday: Colors mixed, and the result was some players having to wearing pinkish socks.
Then on the way to the arena guard Kenny Gaines started feeling queasy.
“A little stomach thing,” Gaines said. “But I overcame it.”
It was emblematic of the Bulldogs’ season. A rough start, but the finish is looking strong.
Gaines got hot. South Carolina went cold. And Georgia got back on track at a critical time, running away with a 73-56 road win. Tied at halftime, Georgia went on a 16-1 run to start the second half and cruised from there.
It was an important win for the Bulldogs (15-11, 9-5 SEC), who remain in sole possession of third place in the conference with four games to go.
It was also potentially an important win for head coach Mark Fox, whose team has now matched its win total from last season. Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said after last year that he was looking for “improvement” this year, and at least record-wise, the Bulldogs are on the verge of accomplishing that.
If it weren’t for their poor non-conference performance, the Bulldogs would be in contention for an NCAA tournament berth. But they started 1-4, with losses to three teams (Georgia Tech, Davidson, Temple) that are ranked outside the top 150 of the RPI. Fox had an interesting assessment of that.
“We weren’t very good before we sliced the turkey,” Fox said. “But since Thanksgiving we’ve been making progress, so I’m proud of our team for continuing to get better.”
Georgia was picked to finish 11th in the 14-team conference in a preseason vote. Now it could end up finishing in the top four, which would result in a double-bye in the SEC tournament.
That makes it easy to look back on that pre-Thanksgiving period and wonder what could have been.
“We not only lost our best player. We lost the best player in our league,” Fox said, alluding to the early departure of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “So it took us some time to get used to not having him. Yeah, we wish we could have some of those back, but we put ourselves in that position, and we can’t have them back. We’ll just make the most of where we are.”
The win at South Carolina was Georgia’s third on the road this season. It was also the fifth straight overall against the Gamecocks (10-17, 3-11). The Gamecocks had won two of their past three games before Saturday.
But Gaines’ shooting allowed Georgia to scratch out Saturday’s win. That, and horrific second-half shooting by South Carolina. The Gamecocks missed their first 14 shots from the floor after the break and at one point were 2-for-23. That allowed the lead to stretch out to as many as 21.
Gaines scored a career-high 27 points, including 15 in the first half to keep Georgia in the game. Georgia’s Marcus Thornton (12 points, 10 rebounds) had his third double-double of the season; the other two also came in conference wins.
“There’s no other feeling like a road win,” said forward Brandon Morris, who also had 12 points. “We definitely needed this.” “It just helps us to continue to build confidence,” Thornton said.
Charles Mann, Georgia’s leading scorer this season, had a second straight off night, with just seven points. But Gaines made up for it, along with Thornton and Brandon Morris (12 points).
“We kind of feed off each other,” Gaines said. “Whenever I feel like he’s having a rougher night I try to pick it up. Or sometimes if I’m having a rough night, he’ll pick it up. We kind of feed off each other. I saw that he was struggling in the first half, and in the second half just a little bit. So I just wanted to be a great teammate and help.”
Fox pointed out that Gaines, who missed two games and 10 days of practice with a thigh injuries, was probably fresher than other players.
“He’s really playing well, playing with a lot of confidence, and that’s a big plus for us,” Fox said.