There was no need for the Georgia men’s basketball team to dissect the final minute or curse the last possession this time.
The Bulldogs finally could breathe easier as the final seconds of regulation ticked away on a 78-68 win over Tennessee Saturday before a season-high 9,436 fans at Stegeman Coliseum.
Kenny Gaines made sure of that with some clutch 3-pointers in the final 5:20.
Charles Mann, another freshman guard, helped provide some cushion by making 12 of 14 free throws en route to a career-high-tying 18 points.
And star sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who lost a ball out of bounds with 19.2 seconds to go in a one-point loss at Vanderbilt Wednesday, bounced back with 25 points, his most in a Southeastern Conference game this season.
Georgia extended a seven-point lead with 1:09 to play to a 14-point lead with 35 seconds left, and won by double digits for the first time in a month.
“It felt good knowing we managed to hold them down and not make it a close game,” Caldwell-Pope said. “It just felt good to finish the game that way.”
Georgia (14-15, 8-8 SEC) completed a season sweep over Tennessee for the first time since 2001.
The Volunteers (17-11, 9-7) damaged their chances of getting an NCAA Tournament at-large berth as their six-game winning streak came to an end.
“Just to get this win, it put us back on the right track,” Mann said. “We’ve got our confidence back, our feel for the team back. It was a really good win.”
The Bulldogs and their coach needed a pick-me up after losing three road games — against Ole Miss, Arkansas and Vanderbilt — in the last two weeks that they led or were tied in the final minute of regulation.
After the loss to Vanderbilt, Georgia football coach Mark Richt reached out to his good friend, Mark Fox, at about 6:15 a.m. Thursday.
“Two words: Waffle House,” Fox said.
Richt provided words of inspiration to Georgia players on Friday, but they came out looking a bit scattered and smothered Saturday.
Georgia fell behind 7-0 and didn’t get its first points until 4:17 into the game.
The Bulldogs had twice as many turnovers (six) as shots (three) in the first five minutes.
“I said, ‘That’s the last time Mark Richt talks to our basketball team,’ ” Fox joked.
Fox said he was actually very appreciative that Richt took time to speak to a team down in the dumps.
“We’ve got us a great football coach,” Fox said. “He shared a lot of his thoughts with our team about how proud he was of them how we had been in every game for the last six weeks having a chance to win it.”
Fox called it a “great victory for Georgia.”
The Volunteers began the day at No. 52 in the RPI.
“Tennessee is a heck of a team and they have great players,” said Mann, who had eight assists and no turnovers.
One in particular on this day.
Guard Jordan McRae, the SEC’s fifth-leading scorer, had a career-high 35, the most against the Bulldogs since Florida’s Joakim Noah scored 37 on March 1, 2006.
McRae, a Midway native, scored the most points by a Tennessee player since Chris Lofton had 35 on Dec. 23, 2006. His eight 3-pointers were the second most in a game in program history.
“I mean, we lost, so the personal stuff doesn’t mean much,” McRae said. “It goes right out the window.”
Georgia led by as much as 11 in the first half, but McRae put Tennessee ahead 41-40 on a 3-pointer with 12 minutes to play.
Gaines, who missed his first four shots after sitting out the last game with a heel injury, scored all nine of his points in the final 5:20.
He sank a 3-pointer from the left corner to put Georgia up 53-45. He drilled another with 2:56 to go to put Georgia ahead 62-50.
McRae sank a 3-pointer with 2:28 to go and then made another from the top of the key with 1:31 to play to cut the lead to 64-58. Gaines answered with a driving layup and completed a three-point play after being fouled for a 67-58 lead with 1:25 left.
Kentucky comes to Athens next for a Thursday game at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
“This group’s growing,” Fox said. “You’re not going to win every game until you learn some valuable lessons, maybe some the hard way. I thought it was important for us to get back off the mat because that’s what you have to do in life.”