Beasts of the SEC? UGA off to best conference start since 2003

The Georgia men’s basketball team continues to flip the script.

From a 1-4 Southeastern Conference start last season to 4-1 this season after throttling South Carolina 97-76 Wednesday night in Stegeman Coliseum.

Georgia is off to its best five-game SEC start since 2003 when it also began 4-1.

Georgia forward Nemanja Djurisic, who poured in a career-high 22 points in a foul-filled, free-throw fest, said he saw this coming. Sort of.

“I don’t know about 4-1, but we believed that we can do something special this year and we believed in our team and coaches believed in us,” Djurisic said. “No matter what the media says and the polls, we really believed in each other as a team.”

Georgia was picked to finish 11th in the 14-team SEC after losing NBA lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. That seemed reasonable when the Bulldogs (10-7) were 6-6 entering SEC play.

The Bulldogs have since found their stride. They are tied for second in the SEC heading to No. 14 Kentucky for a Saturday game. Georgia is tied with the Wildcats and Ole Miss behind first-place Florida (4-0 SEC), which plays at Alabama tonight.

“We’re off to a good start in the league,” coach Mark Fox said. “It took us a while to figure out how to play without Kentavious. I think we’ve got a better understanding of how this group needs to play to win. We’ve protected our home court, we have a road win and there’s a long way to go in this league.”

The Bulldogs broke out the silver uniforms Wednesday and were red hot from beyond the 3-point line.

At least when they weren’t going to the free throw line in a game where 59 fouls were called by the officiating crew of Mike Nance, Ron Groover and Lee Cassell and guard Charles Mann was whistled for a flagrant foul for a swinging elbow early in the second half.

The game took more than two hours and 15 minutes to complete, but the Bulldogs finished with their most points since a 98-76 win over Ole Miss on Jan. 15, 2011.

Five players scored in double figures led by Durisic, who burst out of his slump in a big way.

He was 6 of 6 shooting, including 3 of 3 from 3-point range as the Bulldogs opened a 64-42 lead with 14:10 to go.

Djurisic went 7 of 11 from the free throw line on a night the Bulldogs tied the program record with 50 attempts. They made 33.

South Carolina was 24 of 36.

“It was a parade to the free throw line,” Fox said. “I told one of the officials during the game, `I’m not mad because we need to call these fouls.’ This was the emphasis this year. This was the change. This is why scoring had dropped so low. That’s how we need to call the game. The teams will adjust. Our game had deteriorated because we had let it get so physical.”

Forward Brandon Morris (13 points, career-high 5 assists) said Fox told the team to expect a lot of fouls called because the Gamecocks play aggressively.

Forward Marcus Thornton (12 points, seven rebounds) said the Bulldogs “did a good job of staying locked in the whole time and keeping up the intensity so we could kind of finish it.”

South Carolina (7-11, 0-5 SEC) remains one of two winless teams in the SEC.

Georgia ranked last in the SEC in 3-pointers made entering, but set a season-high with 10 on 18 attempts.

“It was there, so we took advantage of it,” Fox said.

Djurisic, who shot 1 of 11 over the past three games, staked Georgia to an 11-6 lead .

The 6-foot-8 junior scored on a goal-tending call, hit a pair of free throws, buried a 3-pointer and scored a layup on an inbounds pass.

“He played well because he was determined to play well,” Fox said.

The Bulldogs, who got 14 points from Kenny Gaines, hit 4 of their first 5 3-point tries to grab a 25-13 lead.

The Bulldogs hit eight straight shots at one point and led by as much as 15 in the first half and 45-34 at the half.

Georgia began the night shooting 35.4 percent in SEC play, worst in the conference, but Thornton said Georgia was more decisive offensively.

It easily topped its best previous shooting night in SEC play of 43.3 percent against Missouri by making 55.1 against the Gamecocks.

“We couldn’t guard them from the jump ball,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “Hard to win if you can’t guard the basketball.”

Notes: The SEC announced its legends that would be honored for this year’s SEC tournament March 12-16 in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Georgia’s representative will be guard D.A. Layne, who ranks 10th on the Bulldogs’ all-time scoring list. The Marietta native played for the Bulldogs from 1999-2001. … Fox picked up his 75th career win at Georgia. He is 7-2 against South Carolina.

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