ATHENS – It was a reverse “Rudy” moment: Georgia seniors Houston Kessler, Brandon Young and Kenny Paul Geno walked into their coach’s office and had a request.
This is too important a game. Don’t start us.
“I threw them out,” Mark Fox said.
This was the same coach who started the seniors two years ago when No. 1 and unbeaten Kentucky was the senior night opponent. Of course Fox was going to start the against an unranked Auburn, despite his team being without its top scorer and clinging to NCAA hopes.
It helped that one of the seniors was J.J. Frazier. But even as he adds to his growing legend, the star guard did his part to once again not make it easy on his team.
After the game, which Georgia barely won 79-78, Frazier showed an awareness of his team’s precarious postseason fate when he said: “Hopefully this’ll be my last game at Stegeman.” (Georgia is a consensus “first four out” team right now, so if the season ended now Georgia fans would probably get one more chance to chant his name, in the third NIT home game of Frazier’s career.)
But if it was Frazier’s last home game, consider it almost ended this way: With an airball and then the worst turnover of his career. Frazier’s first words at his postgame media session: “I almost gave it away.” He said with a smile, because he could, but he did almost throw away his senior night, and potentially Georgia’s season. His ill-advised heave inside to Derek Ogbeide was picked off, allowing Auburn a chance to win the game.
“He loves playing so much he decided to throw the ball away with 15 seconds to go instead of making a good play so we could take him and out celebrate with the crowd,” Fox cracked. “He didn’t want to come off the court.”
But Auburn, needing just a two-pointer to win and given a timeout to think over the final 7.5 seconds, somehow only managed a long 3-point heave. Of course the Tigers had been making 3s all night, so maybe it was their best shot. Anyway, it missed, and Georgia for the second straight game escaped with a win it should have gotten more easily.
About that: You are what your record says you are, and Georgia is 18-12, and 9-8 in the SEC. Close wins over Auburn, LSU and Texas? Not impressive, sure, but they count as wins – unlike those well-played but close losses to Kentucky (twice) and Florida. Those offset.
Oh, but then there’s also the one-point loss at Texas A&M after the clock malfunction. And a two-point loss at South Carolina.
“I don’t know if it’s the breaks or not. Might be,” Fox said, before smiling: “If it is, we’re still owed a few.”
If anything, the Bulldogs are changing the narrative of their season from disappointing to resilient. They’re now 3-0 without Yante Maten, and nearly beat Kentucky after losing him 95 seconds into that game. This Auburn game was another example of not folding.
Georgia found itself down 28-12. It had committed seven turnovers. It looked terrible, and was in danger of being boat-raced off the court on senior night.
Then Frazier got going. He would finish with 31 points, as well as five assists, highlighted by great drives and pass-outs to freshman Tyree Crump, who drained two 3s on those plays.
“Our team without Yante, we’re just glueing it together. But J.J.’s our super-glue,” Fox said. “He just refuses to let us get beat, and I love that kid.”
When it was over, Frazier kissed the halfcourt logo. Georgia’s hopes for an NCAA bid still seem uphill, probably needing two more wins, which would require either a win at Arkansas on Saturday or reaching the SEC semifinals. That’s going to be tough unless Maten rips the brace off his knee soon.
But Frazier is a confident kid, and as he knealt down and puckered up to the G on Wednesday night, he acted like somebody saying goodbye.
“I’m glad we went out with a win,” he said. “I can’t say how much of this university, this fan base, that’s still behind me, through ups and downs have rolled with me, and put my heart and soul into this school.”