Georgia basketball battles back to respectability, working to resemble tourney team
ATHENS — It wasn’t a “must-win” for Georgia basketball, so much as it was a “must-not-lose.”
The Bulldogs squeezed out an 81-78 overtime win over South Carolina before a rocking crowd of 10,523 at Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday night.
Georgia trailed by 10 points with 6 1/2 minutes left before its press forced turnovers and Kario Oquendo heated up.
“This was a huge win,” said UGA coach Mike White, whose team had dropped three straight entering the night. “The last 15 minutes of the game, I don’t know if we could have played any harder.”
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It’s hard to say Georgia basketball is “back,” because it’s hard to define exactly what that means.
The Bulldogs haven’t played beyond the SEC tournament since making the NIT in 2017, and the most recent NCAA tourney appearance was a 2015 opening round loss to Michigan State.
This does not have the look of an NCAA tournament team, and an NIT appearance remains more unlikely than likely because of the challenging opponents left ahead on the schedule.
But it’s certainly possible, especially with the Bulldogs’ fans showing up in force and playing a factor in home games.
“The crowd was huge,” White noted. “South Carolina was trying to run its offense and it was really loud.”
The victory snapped what had been a 12-game losing streak to South Carolina that dated back to 2016, delivering some level of pride and satisfaction to the UGA fanbase.
“Coach told us about it during the pregame shoot-around,” said Madrez McBride, the hero of the first half, scoring 12 of his team-high 17 points on 4-of-4 shooting beyond the 3-point arc through the first 20 minutes.
“I believe that put a chip on our shoulder,” added Jusaun Holt, who came off the bench to grab a team-high six rebounds and cooly sink 6-of-6 shots from the free-throw line.
It was a battle of the SEC teams picked to finish 13th (Georgia) and 14th (South Carolina) at the preseason SEC Media Days.
Georgia (14-7, 4-4 SEC) maintains an air of respectability with the victory, back to .500 in league play.
Those postseason hopes could rest on stealing a road win at either Auburn (Wednesday) or Texas A&M (next Saturday).
“We’ve got some fighters, we’re pretty connected,” White said. “We have guys that like each other.”
South Carolina (8-13, 1-7) is riding a five-game losing streak and had lost its previous four games by an average of more than 22 points.
Georgia didn’t have those sort of style points on Saturday night — Oquendo and fellow backcourt star Terry Roberts were both shut out of the scoring column in the first half.
But the relieved expression on White’s face as he left the floor was a clear indicator the Bulldogs’ first-year head coach wasn’t going to get too caught up in the details.
Georgia needed that home win on Saturday night, and it got it.
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