COLUMBIA, S.C. — A Georgia men’s basketball team that began Southeastern Conference play struggling to simply get in the win column celebrated its third straight victory and fourth in the last five games Saturday behind closed doors in Colonial Life Arena.
“Yee! Yee! Yee!” the players could be heard chanting after coach Mark Fox entered the locker room following the 67-56 win at South Carolina.
The Bulldogs are suddenly at 4-4 in the Southeastern Conference and one game away from hitting .500 overall after improving to 10-11.
Just two weeks earlier, the Bulldogs were in a tie for last in the SEC after an 0-3 start. They have surged into a tie for sixth in the 14-team league.
“We see how good we are,” said point guard Charles Mann, who scored 11 points and tied his career-high with six assists. “We feel good in finishing games and playing really good together on the defensive end and the offensive end.”
Star sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (game-high 19 points on 7 of 11 shooting) couldn’t be stopped in the first half when he lit up the Gamecocks for 16 points, but the South Carolina led 30-29 in a game that included 12 lead changes in the first 20 minutes.
Caldwell-Pope didn’t score for more than 15 minutes into the second half and had just three second-half points, but the Bulldogs survived just fine thanks in large part to a big offensive showing from freshman guard Kenny Gaines, who scored all of his career-high 11 points in the second half.
“He made some key baskets, some big baskets,” Caldwell-Pope said.
Reserve center John Cannon added eight, two more than he scored total in SEC play this season entering the day.
The Bulldogs, who went 1-7 on the road in the SEC last season, won their second straight road game and can make it three in a row Wednesday at Tennessee (11-9, 3-5 SEC).
Gaines again sang an abbreviated version of the fight song “Glory, Glory to Old Georgia” as Georgia does after road wins.
“I didn’t know how the original fight song went so we kind of added a little remix to it,” Gaines said.
Georgia matched its longest SEC winning streak under Fox since early February of 2011.
“I’ve never not liked our team,” Fox said. “Through the slow start and the hole that we are still not out of, I’ve never had a time that I didn’t like our team. We still have a long way to go. We still have so many areas to improve on, but I’ve always liked our team, and I had faith in them and they’ve always been fully invested in the process and that’s why they are finding some success.”
Georgia shot 58.1 percent from the field, its best showing in an SEC game in more than two years since it hit 63.5 percent against Ole Miss on Jan. 15, 2011.
“They’re a team that’s playing with tremendous confidence,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, whose team was held to 35.8 percent shooting. “You can see that when you watch them play. … We never had an answer.”
The Bulldogs got a surprising lift from the 6-foot-3 Gaines, who Fox had a hunch could deliver when he put him on the floor for the start of the second half because he had shown signs of progress in practice.
Gaines hit a pair of shots to start the period and then jammed a missed shot by Nemanja Djurisic as the Bulldogs started the second half on an 8-3 spurt.
It was the first dunk of Gaines’ college career.
“Coach told us at halftime we really needed somebody else to be able to score besides Kentavious,” Gaines said. “I went out there and tried to show what I’ve been doing at practice.”
South Carolina (12-9, 2-6 SEC) pressed and Georgia turned it into easy scores from Cannon, who dunked off a feed from Mann and scored on a layup on a pass from Djurisic for a 43-38 lead with 13:50 to play, prompting a quick timeout from Martin.
Caldwell-Pope didn’t take his first shot of the second half until 10:25 left, but Gaines sank a 3-pointer with 11:48 left to give Georgia a 46-38 lead.
South Carolina, which got 16 points and seven rebounds from freshman forward Michael Carrera, cut the lead to two after a 3-pointer and three-point play from Bruce Ellington (14 points). But a Donte’ Williams putback and 3-pointer from Vincent Williams pushed the lead back to 51-44.
Ellington switched in the second half to guard Caldwell-Pope, who didn’t get his first points of the second half until he buried a 3-pointer for a 59-49 lead with 4:31 to play.
“If I don’t have to shoot that much and my teammates are scoring the ball, that’s just a great feeling all around,” said Caldwell-Pope, who led Georgia with seven rebounds.
Mann left the with 1:46 remaining in the first half with a right shoulder injury but returned for the second half. His injury was not believed to be a dislocated shoulder, but Fox and Mann said they didn’t know the exact nature of it.
“I just had to suck up the pain and play,” Mann said.
Georgia’s freshmen delivered at the free throw line down the stretch.
Mann made all four of his foul shots, and Gaines hit his two attempts and the Bulldogs came out on top once again.
“We’re having a lot of fun,” Caldwell-Pope said. “It’s always fun to win.”
GEORGIA 67, SOUTH CAROLINA 56
D. Williams 2-3 0-0 4, Florveus 1-2 0-1 2, Caldwell-Pope 7-11 2-3 19, V. Williams 1-2 2-2 5, Brantley 1-2 0-0 3, Mann 3-4 5-6 11, Dixon 0-1 0-0 0, Gaines 4-8 2-2 11, Morris 0-0 0-2 0, Cannon 4-6 0-0 8, Djurisic 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 25-43 11-16 67.
SOUTH CAROLINA (12-9)
Chatkevicius 0-1 0-0 0, Carrera 5-13 5-6 16, Jackson 1-3 0-0 2, Smith 1-4 0-0 3, Ellington 5-12 1-1 14, Williams 1-4 0-0 2, Richardson 5-10 0-0 12, Kacinas 1-2 3-4 5, Leonard 0-2 0-0 0, Slawson 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 19-53 11-13 56.
Halftime—South Carolina 30-29. 3-Point Goals—Georgia 6-13 (Caldwell-Pope 3-6, Brantley 1-2, Gaines 1-2, V. Williams 1-2, Mann 0-1), South Carolina 7-20 (Ellington 3-6, Richardson 2-6, Carrera 1-1, Smith 1-3, Leonard 0-1, Slawson 0-1, Williams 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Georgia 30 (Caldwell-Pope 7), South Carolina 27 (Carrera 7). Assists—Georgia 14 (Mann 6), South Carolina 9 (Ellington, Jackson, Smith 2). Total Fouls—Georgia 15, South Carolina 19. A—11,327.