ATHENS — There’s plenty of excuses for why college basketball games have more empty seats than usual at this time of year. Students are home on break, and the holidays mean fans are off doing other things. For Georgia fans, anybody wanting to attend an athletic event this week is probably off to New Orleans to watch the football team face Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
But the Georgia men’s basketball team recorded its first sellout of the 2018-19 season Sunday night against UMass. More than 10,500 fans filled the seats at Stegemen Coliseum to watch the Bulldogs defeat the Minutemen, 91-72.
That’s quite incredible, considering the game also came one day before New Year’s Eve.
The Georgia men’s basketball team averaged more than 8,000 fans per home game during the non-conference slate. That’s the program’s highest mark for the non-conference schedule since 2002-03, and six of the upcoming 10 SEC home games are already sold out too.
“I’m absolutely proud that people are coming like this,” Bulldogs coach Tom Crean said following the win. “From the front row to the top row of the building, they all matter.”
Crean called the fans ‘difference makers’ Sunday night after the victory. The Bulldogs used the crowd to start fast, jumping out to a 12-2 lead against the Minutemen. Sophomore forward Nicolas Claxton led the team with 20 points, but forwards Rayshaun Hammonds and Derek Ogbeide also reached double figures in scoring. Hammonds scored 18 while Ogbeide posted 12 with a team-high four assists.
The Bulldogs also had one of their better 3-point shooting nights, going 8-of-19 from behind the arc.
But what Crean loved the most about his team’s performance was their defense. While UMass scored 72 points, the Minutemen only shot 18.2 percent (4-for-22) from the 3-point line. Georgia also out-rebounded UMass, 43-27.
“We try to stress that a fast start is not how many points you’re scoring,” Crean said. “A fast start is how well you’re defending, how well you’re rebounding, and what are we getting on the other end. Not only if it goes in or not, but are they the good kind of shots.”
Crean credited his teams rebounding advantage to going after the ball with two hands.
“You’re not getting one-handed rebounds in any league in traffic, that’s a high-level league. So you got to be able to get separation, get leverage, use your quickness, but you got to go grab the ball with two hands.”
Claxton led the team with 11 rebounds, and Hammond posted eight. No UMass player had more than seven boards.
The obvious advantage Georgia had inside also led to a great night at the free-throw line. The Bulldogs shot 87.1 percent from the charity stripe. No Georgia player missed more than one free throw, including Ogbeide, who went 4-of-5 from the line. Ogbeide came into the night with a 58.1 free-throw shooting percentage this season.
During the second half, the Bulldogs were in the bonus by the first media timeout. They reached the double bonus before there were 10 minutes remaining in regulation. Crean called that a major factor and something that he has really been stressing more and more.
“We want to continue to make sure we understand what the game is giving us, and today it was giving us the opportunity to go inside and then get to the foul line.”
If the Bulldogs can repeat this success at the free-throw line early in SEC play, it will no doubt come in handy on the road against top-ranked Tennessee and Auburn.
The only gripe out of the Bulldogs’ win Sunday was their 15 turnovers. That’s under their average but still too many.
Regardless, finishing the non-conference slate 8-4 during Crean’s first season is a great accomplishment for the young Bulldogs. The Georgia men’s basketball attendance reflects that the fans are very excited about what’s going on with the program.
They have plenty of reasons to be.