ATHENS – Truth be told, the intangibles didn’t set up in Georgia’s favor on Tuesday night. Its home crowd was diminished by a late tip time. The visitors, Missouri, should have been a desperate foe playing for its postseason life, not to mention anxious to avenge its early-season loss to Georgia.
And despite all that, Georgia’s amazing run in SEC play continued.
And it wasn’t close.
Georgia trounced Missouri, 71-56, completing a sweep that few could have predicted entering the season. The remarkable turnaround for head coach Mark Fox’s team began with a shocking overtime win at Missouri on Jan. 8. It was cemented on Tuesday in much less dramatic fashion.
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“I’ve always thought we could have a good team. I’ve never wavered in that,” said Fox, who voted his team 25th in his preseason coaches poll ballot, but had to quickly remove them when they started 1-4. “We have to play a certain way, but we needed some adversity to become who we are now.”
For the Bulldogs, this victory was important for the standings, and for some benchmarks:
* Georgia (10-5 in the SEC) now has a commanding lead for third place in the SEC. It needs only to finish in the top four to get a double-bye in the SEC tournament, which now seems likely.
* Georgia (16-11 overall) has now surpassed its victory total from last season, and has assured itself of a winning SEC record for the first time since 2011.
* The Bulldogs have also won 10 SEC games for the first time since 2003, although that season and the previous season were vacated by the NCAA. So officially it’s the first 10-win SEC season since 1997, Tubby Smith’s final year as Georgia’s head coach.
The reality remains that an NCAA tournament bid is still a longshot, unless the Bulldogs win the SEC tournament. That 6-6 nonconference record probably doomed that.
But there is no doubt this team has improved.
“We know we’re a good team,” said guard Charles Mann, who led Georgia with 19 points. “We didn’t start out so hot in the beginning, but we kind of found our rhythm, and we’re a real confident team right now.”
“I think we always believed in ourselves but we needed to see some results,” said junior forward Marcus Thornton, who had 15 points. “We’re starting to see some results to some extent.”
Missouri (19-9, 7-8) entered the game with the third-best RPI in the SEC, after Florida and Kentucky. But Missouri is fighting for its NCAA tournament life, and should have been in desperation mode.
Instead the Tigers looked lifeless for much of the game. Their shooting was awful throughout, but especially in the decisive second half. They ended up shooting a season-low 32 percent from the floor.
“Georgia’s a good defensive team but I thought we had a lot of good looks,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said.
It was the second straight game a Georgia opponent went ice cold, after South Carolina shot 26 percent in Georgia’s win Saturday.
Asked if it was Georgia’s defense or just the other team’s poor shooting, Mann answered, “Half and half. We played real good defense. We did a real good job at defending them and limiting their open amount of shots.”
Georgia was also outrebounded for only the second time in SEC play. It’s the first time the Bulldogs were outrebounded in an SEC victory.
But they easily overcame that by playing smart on offense. Their 52 percent shooting was the result of a number of inside baskets. Balanced scoring was also critical, overcoming a relatively quiet night from budding star Kenny Gaines, who was limited because of foul trouble.
“There’s a lot of guys chipping in,” Fox said. “That’s the first thing we wrote on the board today: ‘Do your part.’”
It was actually close in the first half, until Georgia’s Nemanja Djurisic with two 3s to end the half, including a pull-up 3 at the buzzer.
If Georgia had hit free throws they would have had a commanding lead at halftime: The Bulldogs were 0-for-6 from the line, including three front ends of one-and-ones. Djurisic, so proficient beyond the 3-point arc, had an 0-for-2 trip at the free-throw line.
“I don’t know,” Djurisic said, when asked how he misses free throws then sinks longer shots. “It happens. Sometimes I airball then I make two 3s.”
Georgia quickly extended the lead to double digits in the second half, and Missouri never came close to mounting a comeback. Thornton punctuated things with a two-handed dunk to extend the lead to 24 with just over two minutes remaining.
“I’ve always thought we could have a good team. So I don’t think they’re proving anything to me,” Fox said. “I think they’re playing like I thought they could play. I still think we can get better.”