Georgia coach Tom Crean got his first Gatorade bath in 21 years of coaching Saturday afternoon at Ole Miss. As cold and wet as it was, it was a great feeling for Crean and UGA basketball.
“Before the game last night and today, we kept reminding each other we have to get back to having fun,” Junior Tye Fagan said. “We wanted to persevere and get our first road win and our first conference win.”
The walls within the Ole Miss “Pavillion” were closing in on Georgia in the final minutes, a once comfortable 15-point lead shrinking down to one.
Crean stayed calm, and his Georgia team (8-4, 1-4 SEC) followed suit, withstanding a fierce challenge to score a 78-74 road victory over Ole Miss (6-5, 1-3) in Oxford.
“I was calm with our team because I knew they were really ready,” Crean said. “They never panicked.”
K.D. Johnson hit back-to-back threes with 3 1/2 minutes left to stave off one Rebel rally, but Ole Miss’ wasn’t finished putting the clamps down. Coach Kermit Davis applied his trademark 1-3-1 Zone once more with the game in the balance.
It was up to Sahvir Wheeler to solve the problem, and the sophomore did just that, hitting 4-of-4 free throws in the final 1:02 to seal the victory.
“I kept telling him just hit one, and he hit them all,” Fagan said. “He had ice in his veins.”
Wheeler scored nine of his 18 points in the second half, filling up the stat sheet with 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 fouls as he played 39 of 40 minutes in the game.
“The spacing was good, the ball movement was good, and Sahvir was fantastic,” Crean said. “ Sahvir brought confidence to everyone else.”
Fagan was another standout, scoring 17 of his team-high 19 points in the second half, 8-of-8 from the floor in the second half to spearhead the Bulldogs’ red-hot 75-percent shooting over the final 20 minutes.
Johnson came off the bench to score 14 points, including 4-of-5 shooting from three, and power forward Toumani Camara had 13 points and a team-high 5 rebounds.
The Bulldogs led by as many as 15 when Camara hit a free throw with 12:02 left to make it 53-38. UGA had hit 10 of its first 12 shots in the second half to that point.
The Rebels refused to go away, with senior Devontae Shuler and junior Jarkel Joiner scoring 32 of their team’s final 36 points.
Shuler knocked down two free throws for 2 of his game-high 24 points to cut the Georgia lead to 73-72 with 1:27 left.
That’s when Wheeler took over, driving into the heart of the Ole Miss defense to draw the key fouls and knock down free throws, part of the team’s 15 of 17 free-throw shooting effort.
Georgia had finished the first half on a 5-0 run to take a 29-28 lead into intermission.
A Johnson 3-pointer triggered the burst, and then P.J. Horne hit two free throws with 21 seconds left in the half to give the lead.
“I think you see what we’ve been missing the first 10 games with K.D. Johnson out,” Crean said.
UGA forward Tye Fagan
The Bulldogs played from behind much of the first half, their only other lead coming on a pair of Andrew Garcia free throws at the 11:29 mark that had made the score 10-9.
Crean said he was dedicating the win to his wife, Joanie, fainted earlier in the week and suffered a neck injury, according to the UGA broadcast team. Joanie Crean has been released from the hospital and is back home recovering.
The Bulldogs return to action at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in Stegeman Coliseum against Kentucky (TV: SEC Network).