ATHENS – There was a lot to like about what was happening at Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday night. The place was close to packed, it was loud and festive, and the Georgia Bulldogs had a huge lead on a nationally-ranked team.
The lead would go away, but the rest of it was really good.
“The crowd was absolutely phenomenal, and loud. It was just fun, it was festive, it was hot in here, the music’s blaring, the band’s playing. This is good, just relax and play,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said of what would devolve into a 76-74 loss to No. 20 Arizona State. “We’ve got to learn – and it’s part of the growing process – is how to put somebody away. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
That would ensure more of what the Bulldogs had going. But they couldn’t make it last. After building an 18-point lead in the first half and 14 points at halftime, Georgia let the Sun Devils whittle it down to a manageable size, and then gave away huge portions themselves.
Turnovers, breakdowns on in-bounds plays, missed shots and generally poor execution did in the Bulldogs in the final seconds. That had Crean particularly concerned.
Down a point with eight seconds to play, Jordan Harris’ cross-court pass on a side-out, inbounds play was intercepted and stolen by Luguentz Dort, who then staked Arizona State to what would be the final margin. But Dort made just one free throw, leaving the door open for Georgia to still pull it out with seven seconds to go.
Again, on an in-bounds play meant to go to somebody else, the ball ended in the hands of Nicolas Claxton. The 6-foot-10 forward drove the length of the floor before launching an off-balance 14-footer that clanged off the rim at the buzzer. Bulldogs lose.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish a team off,” Crean bemoaned. “We’ve got to learn how to execute better and we certainly have to learn to listen better during timeouts, which has been a problem throughout the entire year. It’s got to get better, and we have to find a way to close.”
The in-bounds miscues stood out on a night that Georgia piled up 19 turnovers and followed up scoring 47 points while building an 18-point lead in the first half with scoring just 27 and giving up 47 in the second half.
The breakdowns drove Crean crazy because everything the Bulldogs were trying to do had been meticulously discussed in the huddles during timeouts and rehearsed ad nauseum in practice.
“You’ve got to stay poised under that level of pressure, right?” Crean said. “You can’t take off and leap. These are set plays for a reason in those types of situations. And we rehearse them a lot. … In both of those situations there wasn’t enough (defensive) pressure to stop us from doing what we wanted to do. We stopped ourselves.”
So instead of a program-building victory, Crean must instead manage a confidence-crushing collapse. To do that, he must focus on the positives, which were aplenty.
The Bulldogs were in position to not just beat a ranked team, but blow them out before a raucous crowd of 9,018. Rayshaun Hammonds and Tyree Crump were 11-of-19 on 3-pointers. Nic Claxton had 13 rebounds and 4 blocks. Georgia held the Sun Devils’ Dort to 10 points below his Pac-12-best scoring average.
Ultimately, foul trouble stole a lot of the Bulldogs’ good vibes. Hammonds had 19 points but played only 27 minutes and fouled out with 4:41. “That killed us,” Crean said. Derek Ogbeide managed to finish the game but was limited to 13 minutes while drawing four fouls and had only four points and four rebounds. Shots that were falling for Georgia in the first half that didn’t fall in the second.
The Bulldogs still have to play Oakland University on Tuesday (7 p.m., SEC Network) and Saturday at Georgia Tech (noon, ESPNU), so regrouping is imperative.
“The best thing about basketball is that you have a lot more games,” said Crump, who had 19 points. “You can go on a winning streak and forget about this game. But we’re still going to think about this game because it was tough one for us.”
Said Crean: “I’m not going to get frustrated. I’m just going to keep coaching and tell them what I think and what we’ve got to do. Did we do some good things, absolutely. ”I’m not frustrated or discouraged. Disappointed, without a doubt.”