COLUMBIA, S.C. – Georgia just won a late-season conference basketball game on the road, which given the program’s general lack of success over the past several seasons hardly is something to brush away, like crumbs off a table.
But there’s reason to be concerned here.
South Carolina scored nine points in the first half Saturday. It made two of its first 21 shots. That’s difficult to do when there aren’t hurricane-force winds. It was comic relief surpassed only by the halftime highlight show on the video screen, when the Gamecocks’ scoreboard operator showed all four field goals (out of 28 attempts) the team made in the half.
The Bulldogs led 15-3. And 24-5. And 28-9 (halftime). And then, well, almost everybody stopped paying attention. Including Georgia.
The Bulldogs won, but only barely, 60-56. They could have lost. I have this theory that those words should never follow a nine-point first half by the opponent.
When a team is trying to reaffirm itself as NCAA tournament-worthy, more is expected — particularly when the opponent resembles walking corpses in the first half and trails by 23 points (47-24) with 11 minutes left. They can feel fortunate that human polls won’t figure into postseason hopes.
Coach Mark Fox put a positive spin on the game afterward, saying: “There certainly are some things that we can look back and say, ‘We have to address this and address that,’ but that’s after any game. The key for us is we found a way to win. We’re not the perfect team. We’re not going to be. We have deficiencies in lots of areas, and we’re not going to correct those all this year. We just need to learn how to try to stay away from some of those, clean them up and move forward.”
Getting to the postseason is about bottom lines. In that sense, Georgia is close. At 17-7 overall and 6-4 in the SEC, the Dogs probably need only to split their final six regular-season games before the SEC tournament to make it into the NCAA tournament. It would be a terrific achievement for Fox, who inherited a program that went 12-20 in 2008-09, won 14 games last season and already has exceeded that this year.
But any expectations of the Dogs’ having a special tournament run are contingent on them not resembling what we witnessed in Columbia. When the Gamecocks came back onto the floor in the second half with their craniums intact and all of their organs suddenly accounted for, Georgia players drifted into silliness. They turned the ball over. They didn’t handle pressure well. The got slow on defense. They were outworked on the boards.
“We made a lot of mental mistakes,” guard Travis Leslie said. “We made some terrible passes.”
Hustle was a problem. Hustle should never be a problem.
“They [South Carolina] got to every loose ball late in the game,” Fox said.
The Gamecocks whittled the deficit to six points (57-51) with three minutes left. The Dogs responded with two turnovers and a missed layup. With 1:26 left, it was down to 57-55 — the first two-point deficit since 2-0.
Later, with the Dogs up 59-56, Dustin Ware missed a jumper, giving the Gamecocks the ball back with 11.7 seconds left. Following a timeout, they got the ball to Bruce Ellington, whose 3-point attempt was blocked by Trey Thompkins. Somebody made a play, and that secured it. Finally.
Afterwards, Thompkins admitted: “We got a little complacent. You’re winning. You’re on the road. The other team looks like they just don’t want to play any more.” And then Georgia went in the wrong direction.
When guard Travis Leslie was asked if he was concerned about the team’s inability to put away this game earlier, he responded: “I wouldn’t say that.”
What would he say?
“I really don’t know.”
When told it seemed like he was biting his tongue, he said: “Yeah.”
It’s probably better left unsaid.
By Jeff Schultz