Georgia coach Tom Crean has been harping on his team to get off to a better start against opponents. The Bulldogs did that on Saturday night against Florida, and it paid dividends with a desperately needed SEC victory.
Nicolas Claxton poured in a career-high 25 points to lead the Bulldogs to 61-55 upset win over Florida. The victory was Georgia’s first since Jan. 26 and snapped what had been 13-game SEC losing streak.
“These guys have not given up,” Crean said afterward. “They have continued to battle. They have continued to learn. They have certainly continued to improve. We have just not had the result recently. We’ve had a nine-point differential in the last four games that have kept us from winning. Nobody gave up.”
The Bulldogs (11-18, 2-14) are now able to avoid the distinction of becoming just third team in school history to win no more than one conference game. Georgia went 1-15 in 1955-56 and 1-8 in 1942-43. The Bulldogs’ worst record in an 18-conference game season such as they currently play was 2-16 in 1973-74.
Georgia will try to secure conference win number three when it plays host to Missouri in the home finale Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The season finale is at South Carolina on March 6.
The loss was a costly one for the Gators (17-12, 9-7), who were trying to secure one of the top four seeds and a double-bye in the SEC tournament. Now they’ll need to beat LSU at home and/or Kentucky at Rupp to improve their status.
Georgia played as well as it has all season in the opening 10 minutes of the game, using an early 14-4 run to build an 18-8 lead. But turnovers undid much of that good work as Florida came roaring back and actually made a late 3-pointer to carry a 28-27 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Bulldogs, who are last in the SEC with an average of 16 turnovers a game, had 11 by intermission. Florida converted them into 15 points.
The Gators would actually push their lead up to six points on a Noah Locke 3-pointer with 13:52 to go. But Georgia stayed focused, took better care of the basketball and kept shooting the ball well on offense. They would commit just four turnovers in the second half while shooting 56.1 from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range (4-10) and 78.6 percent from the foul line (11-14).
Tye Fagan made just his fourth 3-pointer of the season at the 11:35 mark to give the Bulldogs 41-39 lead with 11:35 to go. A driving layup by E’Torrion Wilridge would break a brief tie at 43-41, but that would be Georgia’s last field goal for an extended period. Then Jalen Hudson gave the Gators a 51-50 lead with 3-pointer with 4 minutes to play.
After a Jordan Harris turnover, it looked like Georgia might be in for another late-game collapse. But instead the Bulldogs dominated the last three minutes. After Florida Kevarrius Hayes missed the front end of a one-and-one, the left-handed Claxton made a right-handed hook to put Georgia ahead 55-50. Claxton would answer again after a Hudson 3-pointer with a floater in the lane. His 24th and 25th points made it 57-53 with 1:16 to go.
Crean called timeout with the Bulldogs up by two and 11 seconds on the shotclock and 38.2 seconds in the game. That possession ended with Jordan Harris slashing down the lane for a layup.
Claxton was the only Bulldog to finish in double figures. Jordan Harris had nine points, including a driving lay-up that put Georgia ahead 59-55 with 27.6 seconds to go. Turtle Jackson made the game’s final two free throws with 13 seconds to go and finished with six.
Hudson led Florida with 13 points but the Gators shot only 37 percent from the floor and 23.8 on 3-pointers for the game.
“There has been disappointment, absolutely, but moving forward constantly,” Crean said of his team. “Because we beat a very good team. Mike White’s teams don’t lose, and they certainly don’t beat themselves, and that was exactly what we were able to do tonight.”
The surprising win was reminiscent of Georgia’s win over Florida in 2009. The Bulldogs finished 12-20 that season and had already fired coach Dennis Felton, but Georgia managed to win 88-86 in Athens.
Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia’s second-leading scorer, tried to play after sitting out the last game with a foot injury. But he managed only five minutes in the first half and did not play the rest of the game.