ST. LOUIS – The arena outside them was getting hopped up in excitement. This game was to be about Missouri and the return of Michael Porter Jr., no less at the SEC Tournament. Inside the Georgia locker room Thursday afternoon, the players could hear and sense all that. They knew they were isolated, the footnote in seemingly everyone else’s preferred story.
Georgia star Yante Maten, sitting in the same spot at his locker after the game, described what head coach Mark Fox told his team.
“We’ve gotta fight,” Maten said. “What we have is right here.”
And indeed they fought. And what they have, still, is a chance to extend their season beyond St. Louis. A fleeting chance, to be sure, but a better chance than they had two games to go.
It sounds hokey, but it’s also the right angle to take at this point: Fox and his team have some real fight to them. It doesn’t yet change the overall narrative of this season, or the dynamics of what is likely to happen once the season ends. But give this team and this coach credit. They didn’t pack it in when others might have.
Small picture: Georgia trailed this game 10-0, and the pro-Missouri crowd was stoked, but UGA rallied to take a 9-point lead. And again when Missouri tied it, and again with the crowd on it, Georgia immediately raced back out to a 9-point lead. And when Missouri again rallied within one, and then had a chance to win the game, Georgia held on and got the win, 62-60.
“I’ll tell you what, here’s what I told my team. In life and in basketball, when the going gets tough, some people run for the hills, and other people try and climb them,” Fox said. “And they were down 10-0, and they decided to try to climb back in it, and that’s what they did.”
Big picture: This team could have folded, Maten was reminded, after that horrible 2-8 stretch. After blowing two games in the final week of the regular season, the Bulldogs could have come to the SEC Tournament and made a quick exit. End the season. Get on with the inevitable next step.
Instead, here they still are.
“No, we don’t fold,” Maten said, shaking his head. “That’s one thing Coach Fox said, ‘Sometimes life hits you with adversity but it’s how you respond to it.’ So even if we lose a game or if we’re down, we have to keep fighting.”
Some of it is fight. Resilience, backbone, whatever corny words one can conjure.
But some of it is also this: Georgia has had the ability to play like this, and it has in spots this season. It’s just been way too inconsistent, which is why it’s only 18-14 after Thursday’s win, rather than well over the 20-win mark.
Maten is the AP SEC Player of the Year, and he’s also very consistent. The issue is the supporting cast. And the reason Georgia was able to pull off the upset on Thursday was Maten was well supported – especially by three freshmen who are showing out.
Point guard Teshaun Hightower came off the bench to score 11 points in the first half against Missouri. Forward Rayshaun Hammonds played 34 minutes, second on the team to Maten. And forward Nicolas Claxton had seven points and eight rebounds, and was a defensive force around the rim.
If those three, and a few others, had been playing like this all season …
“Different story,” a team official said outside the locker room after the game, smiling and shaking his head.
Fox was asked if watching these freshmen was a mixture of excitement and ruefulness that it took this long. He answered by pointing out that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, when he was a Georgia freshman in 2011-12, had to learn mistakes on the court and got benched occasionally for them.
“It wasn’t until midway through his sophomore year that he became a terrific player,” Fox said. “These guys are talented young guys, and they needed a chance to play and make mistakes and play through mistakes in order to grow.”
Which is what the freshmen say has happened.
“We grew up,” Hammonds said. “Every part of the season has a learning point, and it’s showing now.”
“We’re trying to get in our stride now,” Claxton said. “We’re trying to step up and help the team in any way we can.”
Now Georgia gets Kentucky, in what will be even more of a road game, considering the usual blue takeover of wherever the SEC Tournament is held. Friday could signal the end of this Georgia season, and more. Or another improbable upset could happen.
Either way, the Bulldogs are at least going down with, corny as it is to say, a fight.