BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Tom Crean Era is officially underway, and if Thursday night’s exhibition game was any kind of indicator, Georgia has a resilient group.
The Bulldogs turned away UAB in a rowdy Bartow Arena in downtown Birmingham, 56-54.
The Blazers had the final possession with a chance to go-ahead or tie the game with 19.4 seconds left, but Georgia came up with the defensive stop, Nicolas Claxton and Rayshaun Hammonds converging on All-Conference USA guard Zack Bryant to force a Blazers’ turnover as time expired.
“We learned a lot about our team,” Crean said. “The bottom line is we found a way to win.”
Rayshaun Hammonds led Georgia with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Hammonds, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound sophomore, scored on a conventional three-point play with 3:57 left that cut the Blazers’ lead to 51-50.
Moments later, Hammonds attacked the basket with a spin move that put the Bulldogs up 56-53 advantage with 1:10 left, and UAB couldn’t draw even the rest of the game.
Senior point guard William “Turtle” Jackson scored just three points, but UGA was plus-12 with him on the floor, his leadership and defensive obvious.
It was a UAB team that returned four players off last season’s 20-13 team, including the explosive Bryant, who led the Blazers with 14 points and four steals.
UAB appeared in control of the game until the 13:36 mark when the Bulldogs’ offense came to life.
Georgia freshman JoJo Toppin hit a 3-pointer at 13:36 mark to spark a 7-0 run. The run led to the Bulldogs taking their first lead of the game since the 16:25 mark of the first half, Mike Edwards hitting a soft mid-range jumper with 10 minutes left to make it 39-38.
Both teams entered the night looking to get off to a positive start after missing the postseason last year, Georgia coming off an 18-15 season that led to Mark Fox’s dismissal after nine seasons in Athens.
UAB held a 27-25 lead at the half, committing just three turnovers to Georgia’s 13 through the first 10 minutes.
The Bulldogs treated the first half like a scrimmage — which the non-televised exhibition very much was — with a complete five-man line change 6 1/2 minutes into the action.
Jackson — the leading returning scorer, assist man and steals leader — was the 11th man into the action. By the 10-minute mark, 13 players had seen the floor.
While Georgia opened the game with five players on the court, Crean said that didn’t mean they were starters.
“We don’t have anybody that I’d deem a starter, Crean said at the team shoot around earlier Thursday. “There’s no one that’s consistent enough on a daily basis, overly competitive enough on a daily basis, and aware enough on a daily basis yet for me to say ‘OK, that’s a starter.
“When you have your best teams, you have seven starters, maybe eight, and that means our competition has got to pick up.”
Crean said after the win that UGA isn’t any further along as far as finding a starting lineup, “but we’re further along in finding ways to win.”
Georgia was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC on Wednesday, a program that’s made just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past seven years, most recently in 2015.
“The last thing I could do right now is reward mediocrity, reward inconsistency,” Crean said. “We’ve got to work through it, we’ve got really good people that have to become more competitive, more aware, more together and more consistent.”
The Bulldogs return to action on at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1 against West Georgia in an exhibition game in Athens.
Georgia opens the regular season in Stegeman Coliseum at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, against Savannah State.
First five on the floor at UAB
Second five on the floor at UAB
Starting five second half at UAB
William “Turtle” Jackson
Georgia basketball boxscore