Georgia will head into the final weekend of the regular season just a win away from wrapping up sole possession of third place in the Southeastern Conference and a double-bye in the league tournament next week.
The hard part will be doing that with a road game Saturday evening at LSU.
The easier part came Wednesday night when Georgia clinched at least a share of third by dismantling struggling Mississippi State, 66-45, in Stegeman Coliseum.
After Georgia (17-12, 11-6 SEC) held Mississippi State to its lowest point total of season, Tennessee and Arkansas held serve Wednesday night with lopsided victories to move to 10-7 in the SEC, a game behind Georgia.
“We know what position we’re in,” said guard Kenny Gaines, who led Georgia with 14 points. “We know it’s going to be a key game to win that on the road. We’ve just got to come out and do how we do every game, play hard and just let out defense and rebounding speak for itself.”
The top four seeds in the SEC tournament earn quarterfinal berths, but Georgia would lose a tiebreaker to both Tennessee and Arkansas and fall to the No. 5 seed.
“We need to go play well,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said of playing in Baton Rouge in the 5 p.m. game. “I’ve said it before, this group has to stay in the moment. We’re not able to handle much more than that. We need to worry about tomorrow. Let’s have a good practice, let’s get prepared to play LSU and just take it a day at a time.”
Georgia held the other Bulldogs to 34 percent shooting.
Mississippi State was 0 of 15 from 3-point range as Georgia locked up just its third winning season in the last 10 years and first since 2010-11.
Mississippi State (13-17, 3-14) lost its 12th straight game, the third-longest streak in the nation behind Southern Utah and TCU. It went winless in SEC road games for the first time since the 2005-06 season and has lost 18 straight road games dating back to a win in Athens on Jan. 12, 2013.
Georgia lacked energy early and couldn’t find its shooting touch from the field or the foul line.
It began the game 2 of 13 from the floor—with Gaines accounting for both of the made field goals–and 1 of 6 from the foul line.
Mississippi State ran out to a 16-8 lead on layin from Fred Thomas with 10:42 to go in the first half.
“I thought Mississippi State started the game with a greater determination than our team did,” Fox said. “We were a little bit sluggish in everything that we did to start the game.”
It was reminiscent of the teams’ meeting in Starkville on Feb. 12 when Georgia fell behind 22-8 but roared back for a 75-55 runaway.
This time, the Bulldogs went on a 21-4 run.
Marcus Thornton (13 points, six rebounds) hit a 16-footer and a 3-pointer and the Bulldogs grabbed the lead for good on a three-point play from Brandon Morris for a 19-18 lead.
Off the bench, Nemanja Djurisic hit a 3-pointer and Cameron Forte extended the lead to 29-20 with 3:37 to go in the half on a layin and putback.
“Fortunately, we have a deep team and we had a number of guys that we could go to that gave us a lift,” Fox said.
Gaines had lift-off on a dunk off an alley-oop feed from Charles Mann (10 points and eight assists) to beat the halftime buzzer.
“I tried to get a quick glance at the clock, but I give Charles credit,” Fox said. “He had great poise there.”
The play brought the crowd of 5,165 to its feet as the Bulldogs went into the locker room with a 37-24 lead.
“It was good momentum going into the second half,” Gaines said.
Mississippi State cut the lead to 42-33, but Georgia had this one.
Booneville, Miss. Native Kenny Paul Geno got his first collegiate block and later added his first 3-pointer in SEC play for a 61-37 lead with under eight minutes to go.
Which one did he like better?
“I don’t know. The 3 was pretty sweet, the block was sweet, too,” said Geno, a freshman forward who had five points. “Both of them”
Fox called timeout at one point when Gaines flipped a pass to Djurisc — “it was a little bit of a flashy pass,” Gaines said — to let them know to finish the game strong.
Forward Donte’ Williams, playing in his final home game in Stegeman unless there is an NIT game at home, came out with 1:59 to go and Georgia up by 25.
Williams had two points and two rebounds in 17 minutes.
“I don’t have to put up 30 points to feel happy,” Williams said. “It’s just getting the W in the win column that’s most important.”
One more W will have Georgia needing three wins in the SEC tournament to get the championship.
“We’re trying to get a good seed,” Williams said. “We’ve got to come out ready to play.”
Notes: Georgia’s 14-2 regular season record at home is its best since 2003, but the Bulldogs didn’t play Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee at home. …This was Georgia’s seventh double-digit SEC win, its most since 1996. …Roquez Johnson and Craig Sword led Mississippi State with nine points.