ATHENS — Technically it was a first-round game of the Cayman Island Classic. Never mind that it was 45 degrees outside of 54-year-old Stegeman Coliseum and the Georgia Bulldogs’ opponent was Sam Houston State.
Didn’t matter. The Georgia Bulldogs played as though they were hosting a tropical luau. That is, they had fun, and so did a surprisingly lively crowd of 7,195 who showed up despite it being the first day of UGA’s fall break.
The end result was a 75-64 victory that had first-year coach Tom Crean dancing a hula, metaphorically speaking.
“That’s so cool!” shouted Crean when informed it was the first back-to-back home crowds of more than 7,000 since the Jim Harrick era. “It was fun, wasn’t it? Did you have fun. I know you’re supposed to be objective and all that, but that was a fun atmosphere.”
It was. But it was tense there for a while, too.
The Bulldogs (2-1) trailed the scrappy team from Huntsville, Texas, 55-50 with seven minutes to play. But then Nicolas Claxton started what would end up as an 11-0 run over the next 3:18 to seize control of the game and Georgia would close the game out from the foul line.
“Our fans helped us out big time,” said Claxton, who also had three of the Bulldogs’ eight blocked shots and totaled 18 deflections for the game, according to Crean. “They were behind us 100 percent the whole game and in moments we dipped a little, they picked us up.”
Rayshaun Hammonds led the Bulldogs with 15 points and 7 rebounds, Claxton added 13 and 8 and Tyree Crump finished with 10. Georgia shot 42.9 percent from the field and made 29-of-38 foul shots, but were only 4-of-22 on 3-pointers (18.2 percent).
RJ Smith had 14 points for Sam Houston State, which made 13 of its 33 3-point shots.
Crean’s last two coaching stops were at basketball-crazed schools at Indiana and Marquette, so the large and energetic crowd left him somewhat surprised.
“I don’t know if we win that game without that crowd,” he said. “When we start selling this place out, it’s going to be great. … I was braced for us not having great attendance tonight. But I wanted great energy. I tell our team, I don’t them to wait for the crowd to give it to us; bring the energy to the crowd and they will respond to it.”
That’s what happened with the left-handed Claxton drove down the right side of the lane for a wide lay-up that drew a foul. The sophomore forward missed the free throw, but freshman Amanze Ngumeni gathered the rebound and got the ball back to Georgia’s perimeter. At the end of the shot-clock, the ball ended up back in Claxton’s hands. The 6-foot-10 simply did the same thing and converted again.
Tyree Crump gave the Bulldogs their first lead since early in the half at 57-55 on two free throws. E’Torrion Wilridge made a lay-up, Claxton rebounded a miss and hit Rayshaun Hammonds on an outlet for a dunk, and then Hammonds blocked a shot and turned it into a three-point play on the other end to give the Bulldogs a relatively sudden 64-57 lead with 2:22 to play. That left the old Stegosaurus rocking.
“The crowd was excellent, they helped us through some big moments,” Crean said. “They got on their feet and, when a game in the balance like that, momentum is up for grabs.”
It was the second Caymans Classic game for the BearKats (2-3). The lost to Clemson 74-59 Wednesday night.
The Bulldogs (2-1) fly to the Caymans Saturday morning and will face either Clemson or Akron.
Crean said the emphasis will be on having fun there, too.
“Last forecast I saw was 82 degrees,” he said. “We want them to have some free time and enjoy it. The business trip part is we’ll lift and practice and get ready to play. But we’ll have some fun.”
Home or away, it seems.