COLUMBIA, S.C. | Georgia did what top-tier teams do in its league.
The Bulldogs went on the road on Saturday and beat up on South Carolina, the Southeastern Conference’s last-place team, 73-56, before 13,571 in Colonial Life Arena.
If the Bulldogs are playing above themselves, there’s only four more regular season games left for the bottom to drop out on a team picked by the media in the preseason to finish 11th in the conference.
“I feel like we’ve proven ourselves in this league against all the tough teams we’ve played,” said guard Kenny Gaines after scoring a career-high 27 points. “We’ve had a decent schedule and I feel like we’ve proven ourselves pretty well.”
Georgia (15-11, 9-5 SEC) strengthened its hold on third place in the SEC and already has matched its victory totals of last season when it went 15-17 overall and 9-9 in the SEC.
“We’ve continued to improve. You know, we weren’t very good before we sliced the turkey,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “Since Thanksgiving we’ve been making progress.”
The Bulldogs have gone 14-7 since starting the season 1-4, including losing all three games in a tournament in Charleston to Davidson, Temple — 160th and 172nd in the RPI — and Nebraska.
This visit to the Palmetto State went much better largely in part to the Bulldogs dominating the second half.
The game quickly became a blowout after seven lead changes in the first half and five ties, including a tie at halftime when the game was knotted at 34.
The Bulldogs, who trailed by seven at one point in the first half, went on a 16-1 run to start the second half when the Gamecocks couldn’t hit the side of a caboose.
They missed their first 14 shots and didn’t make a field goal in the second half until a jumper from guard Sindarius Thornwell (team-high 18 points on 4 of 15 shooting, five assists) with 10:52 left.
“We talked about getting back to our roots of really getting back to it defensively and that was the key for us,” Fox said.
South Carolina had a 19-17 rebounding edge at halftime, but Georgia finished ahead 40-38 on the boards.
“Coaches told us we weren’t playing Georgia basketball and we need to get back to it,” Gaines said. “We did (by) playing defense and rebounding.”
The Gamecocks had decent looks, but back-to-back shots during the stretch from Brenton Williams (16 points) and Duane Notice went in and out. South Carolina shot 16.1 percent in the second half and 26.3 percent for the game.
“We ratcheted up our intensity and we were able to get lucky with some bounces,” said Bulldogs forward Marcus Thornton, who had his third career double-double with 12 points and had 10 rebounds.
Gaines’ torrid shooting more than offset another subpar offensive showing from guard Charles Mann.
Gaines said he was bothered by a “little stomach bug” at the team hotel Saturday morning, but showed no signs of that on a day he was 9 of 14 from the floor, including 5 of 9 on 3-pointers.
Georgia pushed the lead to 17 before coach Frank Martin got a technical foul with 9:00 to go and led by as much as 21.
“We missed good shots,” Martin said. “That’s the part that was frustrating. It’s not like were playing 1-on-1 and heaving balls up from 27 feet. … We allowed missing shots to affect how we played.”
South Carolina (10-17, 3-11 SEC) gave away white T-shirts with Martin’s face on it and had white towels on seats for a white-out game since the Gamecocks were 3-0 with snow on the ground in home wins this year against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Alabama.
Georgia still improved to 3-4 on the SEC road this year despite Mann struggling for the second straight game.
Georgia’s leading scorer was 0 of 5 from the field in the first half and finished 1 of 10 with five of his seven points coming from the foul line.
Despite two air balls in the second half, Fox saw positive signs from the sophomore guard.
“I thought he struggled in the first half, but I thought he was really good in the second half,” Fox said. “He defended well, he ran our team, he got to the late clock one time and made a jumper, he got to the foul line. I thought he came back to himself in the second half.”
The Bulldogs bounced back from a 67-48 drubbing at Tennessee on Tuesday when Thornton said the team was “a little fatigued.”
The Bulldogs hold a two-game lead over seven different teams tied for fourth place at 7-7.
The top four teams in the conference get a double bye in the SEC tournament.
“We’re not ready to quite talk about that,” Fox said. “We’re still taking it a game at a time, but I think they understand that seeding in the tournament is going to be important.”
Missouri, which fell to 7-7 after a loss at Alabama Saturday night, comes to Athens for a 9 p.m. game Tuesday.
“Now we’ve got to stay on that same path,” Fox said, “and go scratch out the next one if we can.”
Notes: Georgia ensured at least a .500 record in SEC play for the second straight season and its first consecutive non-losing seasons in SEC play since the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons when Georgia went 10-6 and 11-5. … Three of Georgia’s final four games are against top 70 RPI teams entering Saturday: Missouri, Arkansas and LSU. … Georgia won its fifth straight against South Carolina.
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