Georgia on Saturday celebrated its Final Four men’s basketball team from 30 years ago.
Its current edition looked more and more like its destined for the bottom four in the SEC.
Maybe just the bottom.
It’s hard to see many better days ahead this season for Georgia after Mississippi State delivered the latest blow by grabbing a 72-61 win in Stegeman Coliseum.
“I don’t think the season is away from us,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “We’re playing uphill the hole that we dug. We refuse to put the shovel away. We can still climb forward.”
Losing an SEC home opener to a Mississippi State with seven healthy scholarship players and the worst Ratings Percentage Index of any SEC team — 243 entering the game — makes it probably the worst loss of Georgia’s season. The only other loss to a team lower than 150 in the RPI was No. 176 Youngstown State.
“Every loss is a tough loss, especially this one,” freshman guard Charles Mann said.
“We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said.
The latest loss for Georgia (6-9, 0-2 SEC) turned quickly after a back-and-forth game that included 12 lead changes.
Georgia trailed just 52-51 with 7:38 remaining before Mississippi State (7-7, 2-0) reeled off 10 straight points to take the energy out the home team and was on its way to snapping a three-game losing streak to Georgia.
“We gave up a lot of open shots,” Caldwell-Pope said.
Forward Roquez Johnson drove around Nemanja Djurisic and scored to start the run.
Junior guard Jalen Steele (career-high 21 points, eight rebounds) scored the next eight points, hitting a long two-pointer and then back-to-back 3-pointers — one from the left side, the other from the right.
Caldwell-Pope said he was responsible for those 3s.
“I got caught on one screen,” Caldwell-Pope said. “It was my fault. I didn’t fight over the screen and I gave two 3s.”
With 4:59 left, Mississippi State opened a 62-51 lead.
Mississippi State was 0-3 in true road games before Saturday losing at Troy, Providence and Loyola Chicago.
First-year Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, whose team beat South Carolina by two last Wednesday, said “for us to get a true road win is good for our guys. Not only did it happen on the road, but it happened in the SEC, which is huge for our guys.”
Georgia led by as much as seven in the first half and both teams were playing with plenty of fire in a game both needed badly.
There were positive vibes among the 5,891 fans in Stegeman when former coach Hugh Durham and members of that 1983 Final Four team were honored at halftime and drew a standing ovation.
Durham told the crowd that team is “more talked about than any group that ever played at the University of Georgia.”
The talk about this season’s Georgia squad might be where will the wins come from in the weeks ahead?
There won’t be many if teams do what Mississippi State did in the second half.
It held Georgia’s leading scorer Caldwell-Pope (16 points) to two points after he scored 14 in the first half.
“I felt like in the second half they guarded our shooting guard and we didn’t guard theirs,” Fox said. “We couldn’t get Kentavious a good look at the basket and their shooter got plenty. That was the difference in the game. Our defense failed us and we’ve got to get somebody else who can score the ball when they take Kentavious away.”
Caldwell-Pope didn’t take a shot in the second half until there was 10:55 left. Caldwell-Pope was 5 of 8 from the field in the first half, but missed all six shot attempts in the second half.
“They really guarded me, they really got up in me,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I tried to use my teammates to get open, but I guess it wasn’t working.”
Mann was the only other Georgia player to hit double figures in scoring with 14.
Forward Donte’ Williams, back from a one-game suspension, had just five points in 25 minutes.
Georgia missed all eight 3-point attempts in the second half.
Caldwell-Pope said he hurt his non-shooting hand on a blocked shot and when he reached in and drew his second foul, jamming his fingers.
“Nothing too serious,” he said.
Georgia shot 32.8 percent from the field and 59.4 from the free throw-line. It entered ranked 10th in the SEC in free throw shooting and made just 19 of 32.
Mississippi State went 9 of 20 on 3-pointers after not making any against South Carolina.
“We’ve got to get our defense right, we’ve got to compete,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We’ve got to just play hard.”
Up next is a game at No. 10 Missouri on Wednesday night. Home games against LSU on Saturday and No. 11 Florida on Jan. 23 follow.