BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Tom Crean got to know his Georgia basketball team better, and the Bulldogs learned something about their head coach.
Georgia’s 56-54 win at UAB might “only” be an exhibition victory, but it was an important first step in the Bulldogs attaining the sort of mutual respect needed for a new coach and a new team to get off on the right foot.
Georgia, particularly senior guard William “Turtle” Jackson, sophomore power forward Rayshaun Hammonds and senior E’Torrion Wilridge, showed step-up ability.
Crean, meanwhile, made key personnel substitutions, defensive changeups and play calls with the game in the balance.
“Coach Crean is always locked in and always noticing the shifts of the game,’ said Georgia freshman JoJo Toppin, whose 3-pointer at the 13:36 mark of the second half ignited a 7-0 run that gave the Bulldogs their first lead since the game’s early moments.
“He’s always drawing up something and brewing up something,” Toppin said. “It’s really comfortable when your coach is good with the clipboard.”
Here are four takeaways from the Bulldogs’ win over the Blazers in basketball crazy Bartow Arena:
UAB’s All-Conference USA guard Zack Bryant appeared unstoppable at times in the first half, scoring 12 of his 14 points through the first 20 minutes before Crean inserted the 6-foot-6 Wilridge into the game.
Suddenly, the 6-1 Bryant couldn’t blow through the lane to the rim like a running back, Wilridge matching his athleticism and physicality, and using his long reach to his advantage.
“We went with (Wilridge) as a momentum changer …. E’Torrion has some defensive stop abilities,” Crean said. “He legitimately changed the momentum for us tonight.”
Bryant, who most observers agreed would star in any basketball league, was 6-for-9 shooting in the first half with one turnover in the first half, but 0-for-6 with three turnovers in the second half.
Wilridge didn’t in the first half.
Hammonds looked the part of his No. 51 prep ranking in the second half, the sophomore showing takeover ability down the stretch on offense and defense.
Hammonds was 5-of-8 shooting in the second half and pulled down four of the team’s 11 offensive rebounds the final 20 minutes, one of they keys to the come-from-behind win.
It was Nicolas Claxton and Hammonds making the defensive stop on the Blazers’ final possession after the crafty Crean changed up defenses coming out of the final timeout.
“Nick and Rayshaun made the right play,” Crean said. “It’s great to walk out of here knowing our defense, rebounding and physicality helped us win the game in the second half.”
Jackson was the 11th man to enter the game, and while the results were not immediate, his value became clear as the game progressed.
The Bulldogs outscored UAB by 12 points with Jackson in the game — Mike Edwards and Hammonds were plus-7 — and Crean took note of the senior point guard’s defensive prowess.
“He was really aggressive in the second half,” Crean said. “What he did do, he handled the ball and he defended, and that’s what we need. He brought that defense and played like a veteran.”
Georgia cut its turnovers down from 13 in the first half to 7 in the second half with Jackson on the point, and Crean said fans can expect to see his 3-point shooting improve, too.
“He’s not really understood … the spacing he needs, he missed a couple of threes because his footwork wasn’t where it needed to be,” Crean said. “He hasn’t grasped that part of it yet, but he will.”
Jackson was just 1-of-3 shooting (all threes) with two assists, no turnovers and two steals, but his intangibles far outweighed the boxscore.
If Jackson’s shooting improves, more great wins are ahead for the program.
There were 19.5 seconds left in the game when a loose ball scramble forced Georgia to call timeout with the 56-54 lead and just one second left on the shot clock.
Crean drew up a clever inbounds play that involved multiple players rotating through the lane before Hammonds threw a pinpoint pass to a soaring Claxton that was laid in at the rim.
Somehow, a replay showed the shot clock at zero before the ball left Claxton’s hand and the basket was disallowed.
“That’s the quickest one second I’ve ever been a part of in 19 years as a head coach,” Crean said, no stranger to home court advantage in basketball-crazy gyms.
The referees had the clock reset to 19.4 seconds for the Blazers ensuing possession, an indication Claxton had gotten the shot off in 0.1 seconds.