ATHENS — They come from as far away as Nigeria and as close as East Athens and there are a bunch of them. They are Georgia basketball’s seniors, and they will play in Stegeman Coliseum for one last time tonight when the Bulldogs play host to Missouri on Senior Night (6:30 p.m, TV: SEC Network; radio: WSB 750-AM & 95.5-FM).
It will be a bittersweet affair as their last season will go down as their worst. Georgia is coming off a 61-55 win over Florida this past Saturday, but that upset victory represented only the second win in SEC play this season and just the third overall since the calendar flipped to 2019. The Bulldogs (11-18, 2-14 SEC) will need a win tonight against the Tigers (13-15, 4-12) or one on the road Saturday at South Carolina to avoid becoming only the second team in Georgia history to win only two games in an 18-game conference schedule. The last to do that was the 1973-74 squad, which went 2-16 in SEC play.
No matter what happens in the remaining set, Georgia will finish the 2018-19 season with a losing record. That’s tough for a group of seniors that hadn’t finished worse than three games above .500 previously.
But the Bulldogs have made a point to avoid focusing on such negative landmarks this year. In their first season under coach Tom Crean, the Bulldogs have instead focused on making day-to-day and game-to-game improvement while implementing a system that employs a radically different style of play from the one they were recruited to play. The shift from set plays and scripted movements to constant motion and unrestricted offense has not been an easy one.
But for Mike Edwarrs, William “Turtle” Jackson II, Christian Harrison, Derek Ogbeide, Connor O’Neill and E’Torrion Wilridge, the transition has been one they have enjoyed making. They’re eager to see where it takes the program for which they’ve poured out so much effort and energy these past four years.
“There’s a lot of mixed emotions being in the position I’m in and the rest of our seniors are in,” said Ogbeide, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward from Lagos, Nigeria, who will finish his career eighth in school history in rebounding. “Coach Crean, you know, he’s a coach I could only wish to have in my life so much longer. But these four years and the development I’ve (had), it’s something I’ve put the time and effort in to get where I am. Moving on is not the best description, but it’s bittersweet.”
Ogbeide, as we learned from an excellent profile in The Red & Black, has lived in five countries in his young life and actually is a prince in his homeland. Likewise, Wilridge and Edwards came to UGA from distant outposts. Wilridge, from Beaumont, Texas, has played in 117 games, mostly as a reserve. Edwards, who signed to considerable fanfare out of Westland, Mich., once was a regular who played in every game in his career until a stomach bug sidelined him early in his junior season. Now he has played just 16 minutes in all of 2019.
Then there’s Jackson, who grew up just a stone’s throw from Stegeman Coliseum. A high-profile, 4-star recruit out of Athens Christian School, Jackson was for a long while committed to Connecticut. Four years later, Jackson enters Senior Night as a part-time starter with a 4.9-point career scoring average having never scored more than 17 points in a game. But under Crean’s direction, Jackson has developed into one of the team’s most consistent 3-point shooters and he plays with more confidence and moxie than at any point in his career.
“I mean, this offense is great,” Jackson said. “Coach Crean’s coaching style and what he wants from our offense is just great. He knows what he’s talking about, and we’re buying in and learning what he wants, which takes time to learn a whole new system. … I feel like these improvements will benefit us going into these last games and then the SEC Tournament.”
The walkons Harrison (Atlanta) and O’Neill (Roswell) are both Georgians. Harrison transferred from a scholarship situation at Troy to try playing guard for the Bulldogs, and he has forced his way into the rotation as a junior. O’Neill has played in almost as many games as a senior (8) as he did the previous three years combined (12).
All of them have displayed a work ethic and attitude that Crean appreciates having come in as the new guy with the new system.
“They’ve handled (the transition) extremely well; they really have,” Crean said before the Bulldogs practiced Tuesday at the Stegeman Training Facility. “… I think they’ve done an excellent job and I think they’ve represented the program and the university well. They’ve put a lot into this and it’s not easy. There’s no way to quantify it. When there’s a change and you’re all new to each other, it’s not easy. But those guys have bought in and have worked extremely hard from Week 1.”
Never stopped hammering 🔨🔨
🐶-61 🐊-55 pic.twitter.com/N2A4hDdeGO
— Georgia Basketball (@UGABasketball) March 3, 2019
And it finally appears to be paying off. Georgia snapped what had been a 13-game SEC losing streak when it shocked the Gators at Exactech Arena this past Saturday in Gainesville. Crean read to “the Stonecutter’s Creed to the team in the moments following that victory, in which sophomore Nicolas Claxton poured in a career-high 25 points.
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.
— Jacob Riis
Crean credited Georgia volleyball coach Tom Black for sharing the old adage with him the day before the game. With that elusive win now behind them, the hope is that the Bulldogs will play with even more freedom and confidence going forward.
“That felt great for a lot of reasons, but number for these players,” Crean said. “Also for our coaches and their families and our fans and all that, but mostly for our players, because all the work they’ve put in. We’d been so close — everybody saw it — but to finally pull it off in a very tough environment against a very good team after having some many close games was a huge thing. There was a little bit of relief but a lot more joy.”
Crean said the Bulldogs will likely be without second-leading scorer Rayshaun Hammonds again Wednesday. The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward aggravated his right foot injury when it was stepped on as he tried to make a comeback early against a Florida.
Regardless of what happens from here on, the seniors will leave Georgia with at least one proud record.
“Beating Georgia Tech four years in a row,” Ogbeide said with a wide grin. “Because who wouldn’t want to beat Tech four years in a row? That really empowers our class.”