ATLANTA – In a game of so many big moments, so many lead changes, so many momentum turns, Charles Mann felt helpless. He had hit the big shot, then defended as best he could the final one, but in the end he was just watching a heave, one which could break his Georgia team’s heart, and potentially end its season. “ I was just praying it wouldn’t go in,” Mann said later.
It didn’t. And after an intense, foul-marred game, Georgia just barely outlasted Ole Miss, and the Bulldogs’ improbable SEC run continued for at least one more day.
Georgia beat Mississippi 75-73 in an SEC tournament quarterfinal at the Georgia Dome. Mann hit a driving layup to put Georgia ahead in the waning moments, then Mann defended a last-second 3-pointer by Ole Miss’ Jarvis Summers.
And so ended a game with 17 ties and 20 lead changes.
“It was a March Madness game,” Mann said, shaking his head. “It was tough.”
“They always say the first game in the tournament is the hardest game,” Georgia forward Brandon Morris said. “We got it over with. We’re looking to strap it up tomorrow and go with another great team.”
Actually, a much better one.
Friday’s barnburner set up a semifinal between the two teams that finished tied for second place in the SEC regular season: Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 team which struggled down the stretch, and Georgia, which most left for dead after starting the season 1-4.
Georgia (19-12 overall) also kept alive its longshot NCAA tournament hopes. The Bulldogs probably have to win the SEC tournament, as its poor non-conference performance bring down its at-large hopes.
This is the first time since 2008 that Georgia has advanced to the SEC semifinals. It won the tournament that year.
“I’ve been here four years, and we haven’t won a big tournament game since I’ve been here. So this is a great step for this program,” Georgia forward Marcus Thornton said. “And we’re looking forward to (Kentucky).”
The first time Georgia and Ole Miss met this season, the Bulldogs escaped with a one-point victory. This one was even closer, with the stakes much higher. It was intense and emotional, with both teams upset at the officiating. At one point Georgia head coach Mark Fox, who received a technical, had to be physically restrained by assistant coach Jonas Hayes.
Ole Miss jumped out to an 18-7 lead, and led for most of the first half. Georgia was marred by foul trouble: Four starters, including Mann, picked up two fouls and sat. Thornton played just five minutes in the first half. Mann just seven, and Gaines and Williams had 11 each.
So Georgia played much of the first half with basically its second unit – which came through. Freshman guard J.J. Frazier hit a couple 3s and assisted on another to lead a Georgia comeback. Morris, the only starter to avoid foul trouble, provided a steady presence.
“The whole time I was just thinking: Man, I can’t get two fouls,” Morris said.
Ole Miss ended up getting the worst of it, as two players fouled out in the second half, and three more reached four fouls. Both coaches were upset by the calls, and with good reason.
“It was tough. It was a lot of debatable calls,” Mann said. “We just wanted to stay calm, and just keep on playing. Just play hard and whatever happened, happened.”
The stretch run was a dizzying array of big plays. Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson, the focus of Georgia’s man defense, finally caught hot, and threatened to help the Rebels’ pull away.
But the Bulldogs kept answering, mostly at the free throw line.
“I thought both teams, in the gut of the game, were really competing,” Fox said. “They made a play, we made a play. They answered, we answered again. There was a lot of really hard efforts in the gut of that game. So this was certainly a battle.”
Henderson had 19 points, but finished the game 2-for-16 from beyond the arc. Afterwards, Henderson blamed himself for the loss, which most likely ends his career.
“I just didn’t have it,” Henderson said. “It’s never what the other team’s doing. It’s whether or not I make it.”
Mann did have it, at least when it mattered most. Georgia’s leading scorer this season, he only played 20 minutes because of the foul trouble, but finished with 16 points. None were more important than the final two.
Ole Miss led by one with 45 seconds left, after Summers hit a long jumper. Georgia set up a play, and Gaines was open from 3, but he clanged it. Morris got the rebound, but his put-back was off and batted out – where Mann grabbed it.
“Finally I got a ball to come to me,” Mann said.
He drove the lane and laid it up, giving Georgia the lead.
“He was clutch,” Gaines said. “The team looks to me and him to make plays, and it was his night to make some great plays.”
Ole Miss would still have two more chances. Henderson missed a 3, and the ensuing long rebound was batted by a Rebel player to Thornton, who was fouled. He hit the first free throw, but missed the second, and the Rebels rebounded and called timeout with 2.3 seconds left.
Ole Miss’ Martavious Newby inbounded from behind halfcourt, Georgia’s Donte’ Williams was in his face. Henderson was shadowed, as he had been all game.
“We knew (Henderson) or Summers would get the ball,” Fox said. “So essentially I took a page out of Mark Richt’s playbook and I had Brandon Morris as the free safety. And I said: You go to the ball and we’ll have two guys guarding him.”
“I knew that they probably weren’t going to let Marshall catch it,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. “It was something that I kind of scratched in the dirty. Newby made the right read and Jarvis got off a reasonable look.”
Summers got the ball near the Ole Miss bench, beyond the 3-point arc. Mann was all over him. Summers heaved it up, and it was short. The game was finally over.
“Man. Words can’t explain,” Morris said. “That was a battle.”
“We’ve played games like that. Maybe not at this juncture of the season,” Thornton said. “This is great for the confidence and morale of the team going forward.”