NASHVILLE – Playing the 9:45 p.m. game on the opening night of a conference tournament doesn’t scream main event. It’s a relative play-in game involving a last-place team.
Funny. Georgia didn’t look the part Thursday night.
The Bulldogs, showing their days as a sixth-seed might be over after this season, upset Arkansas, 77-64, to open SEC tournament play.
Could it happen again?
Maybe it’s a little early to project a repeat of the miracle tournament run of two years ago. But given the Bulldogs’ second-round game Friday night is against Vanderbilt — a team they’ve already beaten once this season and barely lost the rematch to, 96-94, in overtime — don’t go anywhere.
This team plays hard. This team plays smart. This team goes through lapses now and then, largely because it is thin on talent. But then it seems to toughen up when games get tight.
It happened against Arkansas. The Razorbacks trimmed an 11-point Georgia lead to 64-59 with five and a half minutes left. Then the Dogs pulled away. They outscored Arkansas 13-5 the rest of the game. When Dustin Ware hit a three-point shot with a minute left to make it 77-61, the Georgia bench erupted.
“What I told our guys was that determination was a big factor tonight,” Fox said. “We talked at the half about how, OK, we’re ahead, but we were ahead the first time we played them [and lost]. We’re going to see how much we’ve grown up the last five weeks. We knew they would make plays. We knew they would make a run. But we talked this morning about being mature enough to play through success and adversity, and we were determined enough to do so.”
Travis Leslie finished with 21 points. Trey Thompkins had 23 points and 14 rebounds. Georgia held Arkansas to 38.8 percent shooting and outrebounded the Razorbacks, 45-28.
Second-chance points: Georgia 19, Arkansas 9. That’s about effort.
Last week, Fox grumbled. Georgia lost at LSU to a team that had won only one of its previous 15 conference games. It was the first dreadful performance by the team since a 19-point loss at Auburn Feb. 10, the first time since then that Fox would use the words, “very disappointing.”
This week, he was worried again. So many media members — and even players on other teams — were referencing the Dogs’ conference tournament championship in 2008. That can distract a bunch.
“There has been so much talk about it,” Fox said. “But I told them: We have to keep our feet into today. If we do that, tomorrow will take care of itself. One thing I liked is we handled the long day well. We didn’t seem too antsy to get to the gym. We were pretty composed.”
There was a strong belief entering the week that, regardless of how Georgia did this week, Fox had moved the program forward. He managed to get another coach’s recruits to buy into his system. He coached his team to some upsets, despite a largely pedestrian roster, heavily dependent on two players (Thompkins and Leslie).
Perhaps most remarkable of all, he got students on campus in Athens to think about something other than recruiting and spring football. The Dogs even sold out a few games in Stegeman Coliseum. Go figure.
As athletic director Damon Evans, who hired Fox, put it: “I’m excited because there’s some excitement around the program. People have responded to what coach Fox is doing.”
Playing in the 9:45 p.m. game on the first day of a conference tournament generally is not a positive indication of a program’s direction.
First- and second-place finishers are given the first day off.
Last place finishers are given the night shift.
But going into the Arkansas game, you never would have known the Bulldogs were 5-11 in the conference. They were being referenced during the week as a program on the rise, and as a team that nobody wanted to face in this tournament.
There also was this headline in Nashville’s newspaper, The Tennessean: “Commodores want Hogs, not ‘Dogs.” The reference: to potential second-round opponent Vanderbilt preferring to play Arkansas. Georgia gave Vandy fits during the season.
“We haven’t played our best basketball against Georgia,” Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy. “That will be weighing on our minds.”
Georgia basketball? Weighing on somebody’s mind? Imagine that.
The development of Thompkins and Leslie in their sophomore seasons is a testament to Fox’s coaching. Earlier this week, Thompkins was announced as a unanimous selection on the All-SEC first team, an honor no Georgia player has received since Jarvis Hayes in 2003.
Odds are that both players will bypass the NBA draft and return to Athens for another season.
That would be huge for Fox and the program. And there is no reason to believe the the Dogs will be in the 9:45 p.m. game next season.