(UPDATED AT 10 p.m.)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Looking for the one victory that could lead fans to exclaim “We’re in!” and the NCAA tournament committee to place Georgia’s resume on the stack of 68, the Bulldogs instead prolonged the debate and the agony.
The Bulldogs were good enough at times Thursday night to lead 13th-ranked Florida on the road by 11 points. They also were inconsistent and panicky enough to melt down in the second half, go cold, let up on defense and lose.
Does the NCAA give style points for teases?
The Dogs lost to Florida 71-62 at the O’Connell Center. They are now 1-5 this season against ranked teams – the only win coming over Kentucky in January.
There is no shame in losing in Gainesville. But the lead-and-wilt act can wear on even the most optimistic fans. Also, the head coach.
“We’re not the most mature group when it comes to handling success,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I think our leadership in [that area] has got to improve.”
Georgia is 18-9. This is how close they could be to 20 wins. They have led at halftime in the past six games but are only 3-3 (the losses coming to Xavier, Vanderbilt and Florida). Fox said the common thread is Georgia lost the rebounding battle in the second half. Guard Travis Leslie pointed to a slip in attitude, not a statistic.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding and keep fighting,” he said. “If we’re going to be in that situation, we can’t get comfortable and let teams back in it. If things [stop] going our way, we can’t start getting overly concerned have things start falling apart.”
The Dogs committed 13 turnovers to Florida’s five and were outscored in points off turnovers 23-5. There’s the game.
They played a solid first half, leading by as many as 11 points (31-20) and by seven (33-26) at the intermission. But Florida came out strong in the second half. Forward Chandler Parsons, who missed the last game with a bruised thigh, came off the bench and gave Florida a lift, scoring seven of the team’s first nine points and tied the game at 35-all on a 3-point shot.
The fast pace turned to Florida’s advantage. The Dogs had trouble handling the Gators’ press, turnovers led to fast breaks, and the Gators took a 52-46 lead with eight minutes remaining. After making only two 3-point shots in the first half, Florida made three consecutive in one stretch of the second half to take their biggest lead, 63-53, with five minutes left.
That pretty much was it. Georgia didn’t get closer than four points the rest of the way. The Dogs made only one field goal (1-for-8) in the final four minutes.
They were coming off an impressive victory at Tennessee, but a win in Gainesville would easily have been the best on their resume. Instead, they’ve now lost 14 of the past 16 meetings to Florida. That’s one-sided enough that maybe the basketball series should be moved to Jacksonville.
At 18-9, a tournament berth certainly is within reach. They should win the next two regular-season games against South Carolina (Saturday) and LSU (next week), before finishing with Alabama before the SEC tournament.
A win Thursday night could have removed all doubt. A projected NCAA bracket by ESPN this week had Georgia as a precarious No. 10 seed in the East Regional. Their record creates just enough discomfort to spell the “bubb” in “bubble” team.
They’ve prolonged the debate for at least another week.
By Jeff Schultz
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