ATHENS – Turns out a building full of school children was exactly what the Georgia Bulldogs needed.
More than 4,000 kids had Stegeman Coliseum rocking with high-pitched noise for Tuesday’s 11:30 a.m. tip against Mercer. The Bulldogs responded with just their third victory of the season, 58-49 over Mercer.
And while the children, who came from Athens area elementary schools, were invited well before last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the significance of their presence was not lost upon coach Mark Fox or his players.
“With what happened in Connecticut, you couldn’t look at those kids without thinking about it,” Fox said of the Dec. 14th shooting, which left 27 dead. “I mean, I’ve got kids who go to elementary school. I can’t imagine what some of those families are going through. So often in this country we lose sight of the things that are the most important. . . . So today did feel different, and I hope those kids had a great time because they certainly added a lot of energy to the building.”
Said Georgia freshman guard Charles Mann: “It touched our hearts when we heard it happened. We just wanted come out here and play good and get the win for the kids.”
The Bulldogs (3-7) had to fight for the win, staving off a Mercer team that led the game briefly in the second half and was within six points in the final minute. And while that might elicit a shrug from many, it seemed significant to a team that has struggled close out games in the early going.
“Mercer’s a great team,” said guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who led the Bulldogs with 17 points and 9 rebounds, just missing his third consecutive double-double. “This win gave us confidence. We’re getting it back. We’re going to build off this and keep winning.”
Mercer had most of the players back from last year’s team, which won 27 games and is favored to win a second straight Atlantic Sun championship. The Bears (6-6) opened the season playing without their star point guard, who was injured, and had already knocked off Florida State 61-56 on Dec. 2.
“We beat a really good basketball team today,” Fox said. “They’ll be a team that has a chance to win their league and have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. They’re very complete and very well-coached. So when you beat a good team you feel good about it.”
The win came in a period of youthful transition for the Bulldogs. Mann, the freshman from Alpharetta, got his first start at point guard. Fellow freshman Brandon Morris got his second start at forward and freshman Kenny Gaines came off the bench to play significant minutes.
Mann, who missed six critical free throws in the overtime loss to Iona this past Saturday, stepped up and made 4-of-6 this time, including two of three in the final three minutes. He scored 10 points with seven rebounds had five assists Tuesday and has scored 28 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in the last two games.
“Charles is still young but he’s really getting comfortable,” Fox said.
It was a tight game throughout, with Georgia pulling out to seven- and eight-point leads only to have the Bears claw back. The Bulldogs were clinging to a 47-43 with 4:05 to play when Caldwell-Pope took over. He was 6-of-6 from the foul line the rest of the way to salt away the victory.
“The kids were excited to see us and we were excited to put on a show for them and get the win,” said Caldwell-Pope, who has led the Bulldogs in scoring every game this season. “They gave us motivation to go out there and play hard.”
Said Fox: “I want to thank Coach (Bob) Hoffman for agreeing to play the early game. Not many coaches would have done that, and it meant a lot to the kids of this community.”
And to the Bulldogs as well.