All that good stuff that propelled the Georgia Bulldogs to third place in the 14-team SEC? None of it was on display here Tuesday night. They didn’t rebound. They didn’t drive the lane and get fouled. Neither did they win.
“They were better at it tonight,” guard Kenny Gaines said, speaking of Tennessee, a 67-47 winner. “We’re better when we get to the free-throw line and when we rebound.”
Those two elements — the Bulldogs entered the game second in SEC play in rebounding and first in free throws attempted — had enabled a team that was only 6-6 over its pre-conference schedule to win eight of its first 12 in league play. Matched against SEC opposition, Georgia had managed to ugly up enough games to win two-thirds of them. On this night, however, talent trumped grit.
The Vols, who were first in SEC competition in rebounding margin, outrebounded the Bulldogs 37-30 and outscored them 34-18 in the lane. Jarnell Stokes had 20 points and 10 rebounds — “A monster game,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said — and overwhelmed every defender thrown at him. (Sometimes even two defenders. Fox was not pleased that Stokes dribbled through a first-half double-team for a layup. That’s not supposed to happen.)
As for free throws: Georgia took only two in the first half and didn’t try its third and fourth until 13:47 remained and the Bulldogs trailed by 10 points. It would try 11 foul shots all told, its lowest total of the season.
“That isn’t a team that’s going to stand there and shoot 3-pointers,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They get into the lane and force action.”
Usually, yes. But not this time. Fox said his team looked “sluggish” from the start, and he cited the schedule — this was Georgia’s third game in eight days — and a touch of flu among Bulldogs. He also sought not to make that sound like an excuse.
“That’s not how we’ve been playing,” Fox said. “They wore us out on the backboard.”
Then this: “You’ve got to show up when the bright lights are on. I’m not comfortable with our effort tonight. But we’ve been playing super hard.”
This was one of those games that was a standings upset — Tennessee came into the game in a four-way tie for fifth — but not a real one. The Vols were picked to finish third in the SEC in a preseason media poll, trailing only Kentucky and Florida. Georgia was picked 11th, ahead of only South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn. To its credit, Georgia has gotten more from its conference season (at least to date) than has Tennessee. But the Vols still have the better team.
The Bulldogs entered having won four in a row, with rousing home victories over LSU and Ole Miss included. What transpired Tuesday was a reality check: On its best days, Georgia can be a pretty good little team; on its lesser ones, it can still resemble the unassuming crew that couldn’t break .500 in non-conference play.