NOTE: Since the game ended too late for the newspaper deadlines, I'm posting the story here:
NEW ORLEANS – Georgia’s season of transition and struggle is finishing with a positive flourish, and finishing a bit later than expected.
Playing the spoiler, the Bulldogs upset higher-seeded Mississippi State on Thursday night, 71-61, in the first-round of the SEC tournament.
The result may or may not mean the end of MSU’s chances to make the NCAA tournament. It definitely means Georgia’s season goes on, as it moved on to face third-seeded Vanderbilt on Friday night.
“It’s exciting, it’s college basketball in March,” Georgia’s Gerald Robinson said. “That’s what you live for at this age.”
Robinson led the way for Georgia with 23 points, including the key shot: The senior guard hit a pull-up jumper that made it a seven-point game with 58.8 seconds left.
“At that time it was very good to see that go down,” Robinson said in a slight understatement. “I had missed a couple mid-range shots early in the game.”
But it was more than just Robinson, as the Bulldogs got double-figure scoring from four different players. And freshman Nemanja Djurisic (11 points and 10 rebounds) notched the team’s first double-double of the season.
The most important of those Djurisic rebounds came with 3:15 left: Mississippi State had whittled the lead from 11 to 3, and after Georgia’s Donte Williams missed a jumper, Djurisic put it back to extend the lead back to five.
“Coach has been giving me a hard time all season about the rebounding,” Djurisic said with a smile. “He’s tried to get me better. I think it just came out from him pushing me, and I was pushing myself.”
“I thought his effort on the glass was critical to the game,” Fox said.
The effort was huge for the Bulldogs in the first half: Marcus Thornton and Williams only played five and four minutes, respectively, as they picked up two fouls early. But Georgia still managed to take a lead into the half.
Dustin Ware also had some important shots for Georgia, especially in the second half. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finished with 13 points and six rebounds.
“I think the whole team deserved this win, and what we’ve been through the whole season,” Djurisic said. “We came to play, and we’ve just wanted this really bad.”
Mississippi State (21-11) had been considered a good candidate for an at-large berth in the NCAAs. But its second loss this season to Georgia (15-16) may doom that.
Georgia also beat MSU in Starkville last month, in a game that went overtime. But Fox said he and his staff decided this week that they needed a new kind of defense for Thursday’s re-match. They also kept a man glued to MSU star Arnett Moultrie, trying to limit his touches. Moultrie ended up being held to seven points.
And Fox indicated there will be more strategic change for Vanderbilt, a team that beat Georgia by 11 and 9 this season.
“We can’t play them the way we’ve been playing,” Fox said. “It hasn’t worked.”
Georgia has now won three of its past four games. It’s a quick turnaround for a team that started conference play 1-7.
“A couple games here, a couple plays here or there, we’re looking at a completely different picture for us going forward,” Thornton said. “We just take what we have, keep hard and keep competing.”
Fox said it was a matter of the players settling into roles, saying the team was “finally comfortable.”
“We’ve just improved as a team and kind of grown up,” he said. “We had a lot of guys make plays to win the game tonight. I think they all felt good to see a teammate chip in.”