ATHENS – For Georgia, the first half of the Progressive Legends Classic was hard. The second half figures to be a lot harder.
The Bulldogs fell to 0-2 in the tournament with a 62-60 loss to Southern Miss in overtime Thursday night at Stegeman Coliseum. Now the Bulldogs (1-2) head up to New York City for the “championship rounds” of this 12-team, four-game event. There, in the sparkling confines of the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Georgia will face No. 1-ranked Indiana Monday night. They will play either No. 13-ranked UCLA or Georgetown on Tuesday, depending on which teams win.
To say the early outlook for Georgia this season is bleak wouldn’t be strong enough.
“We haven’t played well out of the gate, but we have a lot of opportunities in front of us,” Georgia coach Mark Fox. “It’s a game at a time and, with this group, it’s a day at a time. There’s so much to learn from this game. I thought that all of our freshmen, who I thought really hurt us the last time out, were all better players today. But we all have to continue to improve.”
Georgia, which had trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half, stayed on the Golden Eagles heels for most of the second half. It got within two points twice midway through it only to see Southern answer with an alley-oop dunk once and a 3-point shot the second time.
Finally, on a pair of Nemanja Djurisic free throws, Georgia pulled within one point, 47-46, with 6:48 to play. Once again, Southern Miss responded with a shot-clock-beating 3-pointer by Jerrold Brooks. But Djurisic answered with a trey on the other end, and a frantic finish set forth.
Georgia’s Donte Williams missed four free throws and the Golden Eagles would get out front by six inside the final four minutes. But after a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope free throw, Djurisic got the Bulldogs back in business.
The junior forward from Montenegro made a 3-pointer at the 1:58 mark then, after a Southern Miss turnover, he made a running 7-foot jump shot to tie the game at 55-all with 1:22 to go. Neither team was able to convert on their last two possessions, and the game went to overtime.
Georgia grabbed its first lead since it led 3-0 on a Marcus Thornton put-back 22 seconds into the extra period. The Bulldogs went back ahead 60-58 on a Vincent Williams 3-pointer at the 3:36 mark.
Southern Miss tied it with a pair of free throws from Dwayne Davis with 2:01 left and Georgia had several opportunities to regain the advantage. But with 31.9 seconds to go, Vincent Williams had the ball stolen by Southern Miss forward Michael Craig and Davis scored on a fast-break lay-up to put the Eagles up 62-60.
That left the Bulldogs the opportunity to get the final shot and they actually got three. All were 3-pointers by Caldwell-Pope — two misses sandwiched by one block — and that’s the way the game ended.
“We’re definitely taking it hard,” Djurisic said of the Bulldogs losing now to Youngstown State and Southern Miss. “It was a hard-fought game. We had so many little mistakes tonight and we eventually just gave it to them, like that last steal that they got. To play that hard and lose the ball at half-court and give up (a layup) to lose the game, it’s hard hit for us. Hopefully we’re going to get up from this and learn something from it.”
But Fox said it wasn’t the series of plays at the end of overtime that beat Georgia.
“It was a hard-fought game and I want to congratulate Southern Miss because they made the plays to win and they deserve credit for that,” Fox said. “But we have to recognize that you can’t leave 10 points at the foul line and get out-rebounded like we did in the second half and win basketball games. I thought that was the two keys: second-half rebounding and our poor performance at the foul line.”
Georgia was 11-for-21 on free throws and missed five out of six during a two-minute stretch toward the end of regulation. “If we shoot 65 percent, which is not any good, we win,” Fox lamented.
The Bulldogs were out-rebounded 22-13 in the second half and 36 to 27 for the game and shot 38.5 percent from the field. Caldwell-Pope led the scoring with 17 points and Djurisic added 12.
Southern Miss was led by Jerrold Brooks with 17 and Davis had 14. The Golden Eagles improve to 2-0. Their other win was also in overtime, 67-64 Monday over Western Kentucky.
Donte Williams returned to lineup for the first time this season. The junior from Ellenwood did not play in the first two games for disciplinary reasons unspecified by coach Mark Fox. Williams, who started every game last season, was arrested over the summer marijuana possession. However, those charges were later dropped and Williams claimed later to have passed drug tests.
“It wasn’t about that,” Williams said after the game. “It was just about being more responsible.”
Williams did not start – senior John Florveus did — but entered the game at the 16:40 mark of the first half. He was called for two fouls in the opening period and played only five minutes. Williams finally scored his first points of the season on a 15-foot baseline jumper at the 16:49 of the second half. He finished with four points and four rebounds in 25 minutes.
“It was my first game back, so it’s going to take time,” Williams said. “I wasn’t going to just come out there and start scoring and dunking and rebounding. I had to get the feeling back and get in a groove.”
The Golden Eagles are rebuilding this year under first-year coach Donnie Tyndall. They loss the top five scorers from last year’s team, which finished 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament under coach Larry Eustachy. Thursday’s game was the third all-time between Georgia and Southern Miss. The Bulldogs won the other two in 1974 and 1975.
“We thought one of the keys for us was to at least be even on the backboards and we actually out-rebounded that big, strong, physical front line by nine,” Tyndall said. “The other thing was to try and limit Caldwell-Pope, their All-SEC guard, to a tough night.”
Caldwell-Pope was 5-of-21 shooting, including 3-of-14 from 3-point range. Three of his misses came in the last five seconds of overtime.
“The first one I had a good look,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I guess I was a little too far back and didn’t follow through on it. But I’ve made many shots like that. I’ve just got to come back and make my shots in the next game.”
Georgia was coming off one of its worse losses in recent years. The Bulldogs dropped a 68-56 decision to Youngstown State in the first round of the Legends Classic on Monday, scoring just 14 points in the first half and shooting 32 percent for the game.
Georgia started Thursday’s game much lthe same way. That is, ice cold.
The Bulldogs scored on the second possession of the game – they turned it over on their first possession – on a Vinnie Williams’ 3-pointer, then didn’t record another point until the 11:54 mark. They got four in one stop on that trip thanks to Caldwell-Pope. But until then Georgia had fallen behind 15-3.
Georgia trailed the Golden Eagles by double-digits for the majority of the opening half. The Bulldog finally mounted a semblance of a run toward the end, out-scoring Southern Miss 5-0 in the final minute. The key play was the last of the half. After in-bounding from the sideline with 1 second remaining, guard Sherrard Brantley swished a 40-foot shot from just over the half-court line to pull the Bulldogs within 31-27 at halftime.
“Our confidence is down a little bit,” Djurisic said. “But the season is long. We can’t this game affect the next. We need to get up and bounce back from this loss and we’ll compete as hard as we can against Indiana. If we can compete for 40 minutes and not make as m,any mistakes as we did in this game, hopefully we can do some good things.”