ATHENS – You got the feeling when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer, this might be Georgia’s night.
Instead, the Bulldogs did what has been typical of them this season. They missed free throws and key shots down the stretch and watched in disbelief as Iona made all the clutch plays to win 81-78 in overtime.
The loss dropped Georgia to 2-7 – its worst nine-game start since 1970 — and adds to the list of defeats to small-time opponents, including Youngstown State and Southern Miss. Mercer (5-5) is up next on Tuesday.
The Gaels, a New York team out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, improved to 4-4.
“That was a tough loss,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I’m sick of losing, as our team is, but we’ve got to play better basketball. That’s taking nothing away from Iona because they made a lot of big baskets to beat us. You have to give them credit for that. But we missed 16 free throws in the second half on and it’s hard to win basketball games when you do that.”
Georgia’s numbers from the foul line were mind-boggling. The Bulldogs missed nine of 15 free throws in the five-minute overtime period. That’s after missing four of five in the final 6:17 of regulation. They missed a total of 16 after halftime and were 20 of 37 for the game.
“I think we’ve shot over 6,000 free throws in practice,” said Fox, whose team came in shooting 68.7 percent from the line. “I think it might be over 6,500. And we’re shooting over 75 percent. We haven’t transferred that over to the game and that is extremely tonight. As you see tonight, those are so critical.”
Freshman Brandon Morris — getting his first career starter as junior Marcus Thornton was out with a knee injury — missed two free throws with the Bulldogs leading 66-63 with 1:11 remaining. Iona’s Sean Armand answered with a 3-pointer on the other end and Georgia missed four shots at before the buzzer.
Then freshman point guard Charles Mann, who otherwise had a career night with 18 points and 7 rebounds, missed five of his seven foul shots in overtime.
“I was pretty good (at free throws in high school),” said Mann, who said he made 78 percent from the line at Milton High. “It’s just tough. They played great and we just weren’t able to make our free throws today, me and the team.”
Still Georgia had a chance to tie the game and send it into a second overtime. Nemanja Djurisic stepped to the foul line with the Bulldogs trailing 79-77 with 3.5 seconds left. He swished the first but was short off the front rim with the second and the Gaels closed out the game from their foul line.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish,” said Caldwell-Pope, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds but also missed two fouls shots in overtime. “We always compete, we’ve just got to learn how to finish.”
Iona was led by Lamont “MoMo” Jones, a transfer from Arizona who came in eighth in the nation in scoring at 21.7 points per game. He finished with a game-high 25 points on 9-of-20 shooting. The Gaels attempted 36 3-pointers, making 12 of them.
Georgia dominated inside, getting 16 points and 10 rebounds from Donte Williams and 12 and 7 from Morris. The Bulldogs out-rebounded their opponent 48-26.
Georgia trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half but came storming back. Caldwell-Pope’s shot from beyond midcourt at the halftime buzzer gave the Bulldogs a 36-35 lead at intermission.
They built a 48-41 lead by the 13:08 mark of the second half. But after the Gaels called timeout, Fox subbed Vincent Williams and Kenny Gaines for Mann and Caldwell-Pope and Iona needed just 65 seconds to tie the game at 48-all.
Iona tied the game on Armond’s 3-pointer with 54 seconds to go in regulation, but Caldwell-Pope missed a driving layup and the Bulldogs missed three subsequent put-back chances as time ran out.
“Our team has not learned how to win yet,” Fox said. “We have put ourselves in position, but that’s something you learn as a unit and we obviously haven’t learned that yet.”