ATHENS, Ga. — For the first time in 12 years, the Bulldogs are 2-0 in the SEC.
Just three days after upsetting a ranked Missouri squad on the road, Georgia (8-6) kept the good mojo flowing in a decisive 66-58 victory over Alabama in front of 8,118 in Stegeman Coliseum. And on a night that saw the Bulldogs shoot 32.6 percent from the field, it was their defense and rebounding that again proved to be the difference.
“I’ve been very critical privately and publicly of our defense and rebounding. Tonight it was really good. They deserve credit for digging in and doing the dirty work. You need to be able to win when you don’t shoot it well,” head coach Mark Fox said. “I think we took a lot of early shots that we could’ve turned down, especially to start the second half. But it’s rewarding to see we’ve made progress in those other areas.”
Georgia won the battle of the boards 41-32 on Saturday night, improving to 8-0 when it outrebounds an opponent. Leading the way: redshirt junior Marcus Thornton, who grabbed eight rebounds while also registering a career-high five blocks.
“I think he was under-appreciated before with his defense and rebounding and I think today you see how valuable he is,” Fox said. “He was a significant part of this win.”
Of course, we would be remiss without acknowledging UGA’s perimeter defense, which played a part in holding the Crimson Tide to shooting 36.5 percent on field goals. Leading scorer Trevor Releford, who came in averaging 18.3 points per game, scored two points in the first half and finished 1-for-8 from 3-point range.
Releford still finished with 17 points, but the slow start was very much a part of UGA jumping out to a double-digit lead in the waning minutes of the first half.
“He’s a heck of a player. Probably one of the best point guards in the country. I just tried to play defense and deny him the ball,” sophomore guard Charles Mann said.
Offensively, the Bulldogs were paced by Mann and fellow sophomore Kenny Gaines, both of whom dropped 22 points on the Crimson Tide.
“I think [Gaines] had a great game. A career high. He did it with efficiency, made cerebral plays all around. He also defended pretty well,” Thornton said.
For Mann, 13 of those points came from the free-throw line, where he shot 76 percent. And as the UGA offense began to drag its legs, shooting 19 percent in the second half and at one point leading by a mere three points, that production helped keep the lead out of Alabama’s hands.
“We weren’t shooting very well in the second half, but we did get to the free throw line to try to make up for the missed opportunities we had at the line,” said Gaines, who scored 16 of his 22 in the first half.
Fox was a bit critical of Gaines’ later shot selections, chalking it up to a bit of offensive immaturity, but said he believes both he and the rest of the team should handle leads better with more experience in those situations.
“As a sophomore, I think he thought he could get 40,” Fox said. “He took some shots in the second half where we need to put the reins on him a little bit. But he needs that experience.”
Not even one week ago, Georgia was a .500 team entering SEC play with many (read: me) projecting an unremarkable season. But now? The Bulldogs are heating up. The fans, as evidenced by the impressive crowd turnout at Stegeman, are noticing. And the players are feeling right on the court.
“It builds a great deal of confidence. You’re playing games, you’re playing at this level you have to have the confidence knowing you can execute,” Thornton said.
By itself, the Missouri upset made for a nice story. With a second conference victory, perhaps eyes will open a little wider when the Bulldogs take the court. The real test, of course, will come on Tuesday when they travel to take on the 12-2 Florida Gators. But Fox sees legitimate progress.
“This is the first time I’ve thought we’ve handled success fairly well,” he said. “But now we’ve got to move forward and keep getting better, because we can really improve as a team.”