ATHENS – To look at the stat sheet handed out at the end of Georgia’s 57-53 overtime win over Tennessee Wednesday night, one would think Marcus Thornton had little to no impact on the proceedings. The sophomore from Atlanta’s line read: 23 minutes played, zero points, 1 rebound, 4 personal fouls.
But to the man who fills out the lineup card for the Bulldogs, there was not a more important contributor.
“I was really pleased with our defense and, I gotta tell you, the main reason was Marcus Thornton was back,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “He gave us an element we’ve been missing since he’s been out.”
Thornton, a 6-foot-9 power forward, has been out since going down with a knee injury in the Furman game on Dec. 23. Shortly after Christmas he underwent arthroscopic surgery and has remained sidelined until now. Thornton returned to the court just 3:52 into Wednesday’s game and Tennessee immediately felt his presence.
The Vols shot just 34.9 percent for the game — the first time this season an SEC team hasn’t shot under 50 percent — and their big men accounted for 11 of their 20 turnovers, 16 if you count 6-foot-7 swingman Cameron Tatum.
“Marcus made a huge impact for us defensively,” Fox said. “He hasn’t been able to play or even practice in a month and he really made some key plays for us. We didn’t know he could play until yesterday when he went to the doctor, but there was zero hesitation in our decision. We needed him on defense.”
Said Thornton: “I was just so happy to get out there and fight and help us get a win against a rival like Tennessee.”
Thornton helped get the Bulldogs in position to win. It was Donte Williams, Gerald Robinson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who made the plays in overtime to actually secure victory.
Williams made a lay-up off a Robinson feed with 1:03 left in overtime and was fouled on the play. Williams missed the subsequent free throw, but Caldwell-Pope snuck into the lane for the rebound and Georgia kept possession and a 54-53 lead.
The Bulldogs ran down the clock to 39.8 seconds when Williams missed a contested layup. But this time Nemanja Djurisic rebounded the miss. Robinson was eventually fouled and made both ends of a one-and-one for 56-53 advantage with 26.4 seconds to go. Tennessee’s Trae Golden missed an harried lay-up attempt and Caldwell-Pope’s free throw provided the final margin.
“The play was for Gerald to go baseline, but my dude came to help, so he dished it off to me and I knew I had to finish, it was crunch time,” said Williams, who finished with 11 points for the Bulldogs. “Coach Fox drew up a good play and I just knew it was going to work for some reason.”
The victory was quite a relief for the Bulldogs (10-8, 1-3 SEC), who recorded their first SEC win of the season. It came on their first of a three-game homestand. Georgia plays host to Ole Miss on Saturday at 4 p.m.
“We know we can’t relax,” Robinson said. “We know we’ve got another game Saturday and we’ve got to take care of our homecourt. But it’s a positive step forward.”
Robinson, who twice had to leave the game with an injured left ankle, led the Bulldogs with 16 points. He also had 6 rebounds and 5 assists.
Donte Williams and Nemanja Djurisic added 11 apiece. Leading scorer Caldwell-Pope was held to 9 points but made key defensive plays down the stretch of the game, which was tied 46-all at the end of regulation.
The Vols fall to 8-10 overall and 1-3 in league play. Golden, a sophomore guard from Powder Springs, led Tennessee with 16 points.
Djurisic looked like he might have made the play of the game when he blocked a shot, came away with the ball and went coast-to-coast for an underhanded, layup and a 52-50 lead with 2:32 left in overtime. But only 22 seconds later, Tennessee’s Skylar McBee, who had not scored a point in regulation, made a 3 from the left wing to get the Vols back out front 53-52.
Robinson tied for Georgia at 46-all on a driving lay-up from the left wing with 18.3 seconds remaining. Tennessee got the ball down the floor then called timeout with 18 seconds left. The Bulldogs matched with a timeout of their own.
All that the Vols got out of that was a rushed eight-foot, fall-away jumper from Golden that the Bulldogs rebounded with six-tenths of a second remaining. It’s debatable whether Caldwell-Pope’s three-quarters court heave would have even counted after a timeout, but it didn’t hit anything.
“This game really showed the character of both teams,” Fox said. “We both played really hard and I’m very pround of my team and the way they battled to stay in it and win this game.”