AUBURN, Ala. – A few minutes after Georgia’s season went from just disappointing to plain embarrassing, J.J. Frazier stood in a hallway here at Auburn Arena and laid out what went wrong in simple, short sentences.
“Determination. Execution. The will to win,” he said. “We didn’t come out with that.”
Why is that, the junior guard was asked?
“We’ve gotta look in the mirror,” Frazier said. “I don’t know.”
This was a new low for the Bulldogs, and Frazier and his head coach knew it.
Auburn is one of the SEC’s worst teams, and was without its two leading scorers. And yet it still beat Georgia, 84-81, leading by as many as 18 in the first half, then withstanding a too-late run by Frazier and the Bulldogs.
Afterwards, head coach Mark Fox wasn’t issuing any happy talk about the comeback.
“We didn’t have the right effort or the right mentality in the first half,” Fox said. “We didn’t change one thing strategically from half one to half two. We just didn’t do anything we wanted to do the right way in the first half. We obviously weren’t in the right place mentally to start the game.”
Five observations from Georgia’s third straight loss:
1. OFF THE RAILS
Up until now, the one thing Georgia could say was it hadn’t lost to a bad team. No more. Auburn (11-16 overall, 5-10 in the SEC) becomes the first team ranked outside the RPI top 100 to beat Georgia this season.
The Bulldogs (now 14-12, 7-8) now face the prospect of finishing below .500 in conference play for the first time since 2012. This for a team that had legitimate NCAA tournament hopes as recently as last week.
Now even the NIT might be a long shot.
“We’re not as complete a team as we were a year ago,” Fox said. “Our hope was to be in position as the season ended to play for something. Obviously the two seniors we had last year up front (Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic) we were able to endure all the ups and downs of the season, the injuries. And this year we haven’t managed the ups and downs of the season as well. But we’ve gotta keep trying to scratch out wins.”
2. A DIFFERENCE OF TONES
Frazier was asked afterwards what was wrong with the team: Not enough leadership? The coaches not pushing the right buttons?
“Like I said we’ve got to look in the mirror,” he said. “I don’t know.”
The diminutive (5-foot-10) guard’s tone remained strident, repeating twice that the team wasn’t determined enough.
But Gaines, asked about Frazier’s comments, chose to put it differently, and stayed optimistic.
“I guess so from his point of view. From mine, I’d just say we weren’t locked in as a team like we should have been. But it’s not the end of the season, we can still make it to where we want to. We’ve just got to keep pushing.”
Georgia has three games remaining, home games against Ole Miss and Alabama sandwiched around a trip to South Carolina. Then it’s the SEC tournament.
“I always believe in my teammates,” Frazier said. “One thing I’ve never done is quit. And we’re not going to quit. That’s not us, and that’s not who we are. Our coach isn’t like that, and we’re not like that. We didn’t play well. But we’ve just got to look in the mirror.”
3. ANOTHER POROUS FIRST HALF
What was so flabbergasting, from Georgia’s end, is that it struggled so much in the first half in last Saturday’s loss at Vanderbilt, and then did the same thing all over again on Wednesday. The Bulldogs started the game 6-for-25 from the floor, and with the Tigers knocking down 3s (they finished the game 11-for-24) the game got out of hand, at least at first.
Part of the problem was not getting the ball inside more. Yante Maten, the team’s leading scorer this season, only had one attempt in the first 11 minutes. But once again the Bulldogs couldn’t make up for it by hitting open shots, or creating chances through drives.
Auburn was playing without senior forward Tyler Harris, the team’s current leading scorer. Kareem Canty, who had led the team in scoring, left the team earlier this month. And yet what was left of the Tigers still basically ran the Bulldogs off the floor in the first half.
4. MATEN’S CURIOUS LONG ABSENCE
When Auburn took control of the game in the first half, it came with Yante Maten, Georgia’s leading scorer and rebounder, sitting on the bench. He didn’t have any fouls at that point, but he was scoreless and Fox chose to sit him.
“He was not playing well. And so I sat him down,” Fox said.
Maten checked out at the 9:05 mark, with Georgia trailing 17-11, and sat for nearly five minutes as even the rarely-used Osahen Iduwe saw the floor. By the time Maten checked back in, at the 4:08 mark, it wasa 32-17.
But Maten was taken out again. He wasn’t on the floor when Auburn got three straight offensive rebounds, leading to free throws to extend the score to 37-18. And he was a still out when another offensive rebound led to a lay-up to make it 39-23.
Maten scored all of his 10 points in the second half.
5. GAINES’ STRUGGLES – UNTIL THE END
Gaines and Frazier combined for eight points in the first half. They combined for 44 in the second half, propelling a comeback that still didn’t change the outcome.
“I didn’t come to compete as I really should have in the first half, and I let my team down in the first half,” Frazier said. “I put us in a hole.”
Early on, Gaines just wasn’t on his game in general. He lost the ball out of bounds twice in the span of a few minutes. It was nothing new. The senior guard came in averaging 6.1 points over the previous five games, after averaging more than 13 points a game.
Georgia finally found its offensive rhythm in the second half, scoring 30 points in the first 13 minutes. Even when Auburn kept hitting 3s, the Bulldogs kept the pressure on, and had the ball down six with three minutes left. When Auburn again took it out to a nine-point deficit, Gaines got hot to make it interesting, then Frazier’s last 3 made it even more interesting. But it was all too late.