ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs are what they are at this point. That’s all we’re left to assume.
They continued to have the same sort of breakdowns that have plagued them most of the season against South Carolina on Saturday. That resulted in their sixth consecutive SEC loss, 86-80, before another large crowd at Stegeman Coliseum.
Long scoring droughts and soft transition defense by the Bulldogs were interrupted by brief periods of offensive precision and defensive intensity. In the end, it was just enough to keep the home crowd of 9,820 engaged as Georgia trailed from the first possession of the game to the last.
It was Georgia’s fourth straight home loss to South Carolina, which has won five straight overall against the Bulldogs (10-11, 1-7 SEC). The Gamecocks improve to 11-10 overall and 6-2 in SEC play.
“Today we didn’t guard the ball well enough,” Crean said. “The basket looked like Lake Michigan for them and I’m disappointed in that because they were open. … Too many open looks. Too many open looks and too many open drives.”
After trailing by as many as 15 points in the first half, Georgia got within two points a few seconds into the second half and were within three in the final minute of play. But each time the Bulldogs would get to within a possession or two of the lead, they gave away possessions that resulted in South Carolina high-percentage plays.
Georgia finished with 14 turnovers — 10 of which came in the second half — while South Carolina shot 68.8 percent beyond the arc and made 11 3-pointers to keep the Bulldogs at a distance. The Gamecocks made 65.2 percent of their field goals in the second half but only out-scored the Bulldogs 41-40.
The Gamecocks finished with four players in double figures, led by Chris Silva and A.J. Lawson with 19 apiece. South Carolina guard Hassani Gravett, a senior from Villa Rica, added 13 while going 3-of-4 on 3-point shots.
Derek Ogbeide led the Bulldogs with 16 points off the bench and Tyree Crump added 14 with four 3-pointers. But Crump played only seven minutes in the second half due poor defensive play, according to Crean. Rayshaun Hammonds added 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting but also saw limited minutes (22) due to turnovers (4) and being a defensive liability.
The Bulldogs got within three points on two Turtle Jackson free throws with 1:06 to play. But after forcing a South Carolina miss by Hassani Gravett on a well-defended jump shot, A.J. Lawson grabbed the rebound and Georgia was forced to foul. Lawson made one of the two foul shots with five seconds remaining. The Bulldogs, fittingly, turned the ball over again without getting off a final shot.
Another fitful stretch for Georgia came midway through the second half after a Jordan Harris 3-pointer got the Bulldogs to within 60-56. That was followed by a wide-open 3 by South Carolina forward Felipe Haase. Back-to-back Georgia turnovers resulted in two more 3s from the 6-9, 253-pound sophomore, and in a matter of two minutes the Bulldogs trailed again by 13 points.
That pattern was repeated several times throughout the game, with Georgia getting within a possession or two only to find itself staring up at another large deficit minutes later after failing to get defensive stops.
“We have improved offensively and we have improved defensively. The fact that we need to improve some more is a different question,” said Ogbeide, one of five seniors on the Bulldogs’ roster. “When it comes down to it, you have to do the little things to get the big stops and really man up. Just get it done in the heart of the moment.”
South Carolina coach Frank Martin, for one, is impressed by what he seeing from Crean in his first year at Georgia. Admittedly a Mark Fox defender, he lauded Crean for generating the type of crowds and atmosphere he has created at Stegeman Coliseum. The Bulldogs haven’t had a home crowd under 9,000 since before Christmas and were coming off of three straight sellouts. Saturday’s game was technically a sellout but there were numerous no-shows.
“I’ve got to congratulate Tom and this university because they’re doing something to generate an unbelievable passion in this fan base,” Martin said. “Watching tape, every game, conference, non-conference — they sold out December 30th against a team I might’ve gotten a chance to play for (UMass) — you’re seeing those crowds. That’s big-time, and that’s one thing this league has been missing. … This school obviously has gotten on board to help Tom. And I don’t need to tell you, those kids are playing hard, playing their hearts out right now. They’re playing different so they’re learning to play differently than they did under Mark. But if they keep this environment they’ve got going on under Tom, this is going to be a hard building to come into. It’s already hard.”
Such optimism for the future was little consolation for seniors like Ogbeide, who are playing their last season. They’ll try to keep the SEC losing streak from going to seven games when they travel to Alabama Wednesday for a 9 p.m. tip (TV: SEC Network; Radio: WSB 750-AM & 95.5 FM.
“You have to have a certain mindset to overcome a situation like that,” Ogbeide said. “It can’t be handled like any other loss or any other win, because those losses stack and they hurt bad; literally, so bad. But we can’t think about that. You literally turn all your attention to the next game.”
The Bulldogs ended the first half on 14-5 run and made 11-12 free throws in the process to whittle what at one point was a 15-point lead for South Carolina to just 45-40 at halftime. The troubling part was how poorly Georgia had to play to get so far behind in the first place.
The Gamecocks opened the game with a 7-0 run as Georgia missed seven of its first eight shots, went 0-for-3 from 3 and committed two turnovers. The visitors pushed that to a 14-4 lead within the first six minutes of play and then 22-8 by the 9:36 mark, when Crean finally called a timeout.
At that point, all eight of Georgia’s had come on second-chance opportunities or free throws, none as a result of its offense.
Finally, the hot-shooting Crump started to find his mark from 3-point range. He made three in a row and Jordan Harris added another 3. The Bulldogs would get as close as 43-39 on a pair of Teshaun Hightowers free throws with 39 seconds remaining. A South Carolina layup followed by one of two free throws from Claxton left the margin at five at halftime.
Georgia would get a little closer, but never would tie or gain a lead.
Afterward, Crean was a little more testy than usual, but remains hopeful.
“Let’s all remember it’s the first year,” he said. “I’m as glass full as anybody, but we’re in the first year of trying to get this thing established, and in a tough league.”