A Georgia basketball team that lived through more than its share of drama and hold-on-to-your-seat moments in recent weeks took care of business Saturday night.
Georgia’s Jeremy Price dunks as several South Carolina players look on during Saturday’s victory at Stegeman Coliseum.
The Bulldogs opened up a big first-half lead against the last-place team from the Southeastern Conference East Division and withstood a mini-run to put the game away.
Georgia’s 64-48 victory over South Carolina before 10,355 in Stegeman Coliseum ended with coach Mark Fox clearing his bench with 1:13 to play and the Bulldogs dribbling out the final seconds.
“It just felt good not to have a stressful end to the game,” said Georgia center Jeremy Price, who scored 14 points and had six rebounds. “It puts a lot of stress on the crowd and especially ourselves. … To get a comfortable win like that, it feels good.”
Georgia (19-9, 8-6 SEC) kept its record spotless against the non-marquee teams on its schedule and moved another step closer to a possible NCAA tournament at-large berth.
It had been five weeks since Georgia last won a game as comfortably – an 86-64 romp over Mississippi State on Jan. 22.
“We needed a game like that,” said forward Trey Thompkins, who scored a game-high 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Since the Mississippi State win, the Bulldogs had three victories by an average of 3.7 points and another win came in overtime against Auburn. The Bulldogs won by a point at Arkansas, by four at South Carolina and by six at Tennessee.
Their losses included tight games as well, including a double-overtime setback against Florida.
“We could have won plenty of games the same way, but we let teams come back,” said forward Travis Leslie, who had 15 points and six assists.
Georgia has won its most overall games and SEC games since the 2006-07 team went 19-14 overall and 8-8 in the conference.
“It’s good to win,” Fox said. “This league is a monster. It’s a monster.”
The Bulldogs remained tied with Kentucky for third place in the SEC East, a game behind Vanderbilt. Georgia pulled a game ahead of Tennessee, which lost to Mississippi State on Saturday night.
All nine of Georgia’s losses have come against top 35 RPI teams.
A loss to South Carolina (14-13, 5-9) would have dented the Bulldogs’ résumé. The Gamecocks were No. 111 in the RPI.
Georgia has games remaining against LSU (11-18 overall, No. 205 RPI) and Alabama (19-9, No. 66).
“We need to win more games,” Fox said. “We need to continue to win as many as we can. … This is a significant victory because we’re going to have at least a .500 record in league play and we have more games to play. That’s progress for our team.”
Just like the team’s earlier meeting this season, the Gamecocks again came out misfiring, hitting just 3 of their first 17 shots to fall behind 22-6.
South Carolina made just 4 of 28 in the first half and trailed 28-9 to the Bulldogs on Feb. 12 in Columbia, but rallied before Georgia pulled out a 60-56 win.
With Georgia in command early this time, the Bulldogs played what looked a little like playground ball at one point when Price passed up an easy basket to flip the ball back to Leslie for a slam attempt.
“It was just something in my bag of tricks,” Price said.
Fox, though,was livid. He pulled Price from the game and chewed him out at the bench.
“It almost gave me a heart attack and then he almost died,” Fox said. “We got caught up in emotion. He knew it was probably not the smartest play. Fortunately for us, it didn’t cost us.”
Leslie was fouled on the play. He made the first free throw and missed the second but got the rebound and scored on a layup for a 20-6 lead.
Georgia shot 56 percent in the first half to build a 39-22 lead while the Gamecocks made just 28.1 percent from the floor.
“This is a team that we have already come back on, and this is a team that’s lost a lot of leads,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. “We talked about that before the game, and we talked about that during the game.”
The Bulldogs looked like they might revert to another second-half letdown when
The Gamecocks pressed and scored five straight to open the second half.
Fox called timeout with the Bulldogs up 39-27 with 18:18 remaining.
Georgia had led at the half the past six games, but lost three of those games as opponents outscored the Bulldogs by an average of 10 points in the second half during that stretch.
Fox talked to his team at halftime about sustaining concentration and mental effort.
“We talked about it,” Fox said. “We didn’t start the half well. We had to use a timeout, but from that timeout forward, we played pretty solid basketball.”
Georgia went on a 12-3 run that included six points from Leslie – two of those coming off a drive through the lane for a one-handed jam to make it 51-30 with 11:48 to play. The lead grew to as many as 24 points.
South Carolina shot 28.3 percent for the game, including 1 of 19 on 3-pointers.
“It was a big step for us,” Price said, “to sustain the lead and keep playing hard and come out with the win.”