ATHENS - This time Georgia didn’t allow the game to be decided in the last seconds.
The Bulldogs had lost three of their last four games, all of which came down to the last possession of regulation. Saturday’s game against Tennessee was shaping up the same way. But when the Vols threatened late in the second half, Georgia answered and actually pulled away. In the end the Bulldogs won 78-68 to sweep the season series for the first time in 12 years.
“We managed keep them down and not let them make it a close game,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who led Georgia with 25 points and 9 rebounds. “We played good on defense and got stops and went on the other end and put the ball in the basket.”
Georgia (14-15, 8-8) converted on 10 of its final 11 possessions of the game and made most of its free throws down the stretch. The Bulldogs were good on 22 of their 26 foul shots (84.6 percent) for the game, with Caldwell-Pope making 7-of-8 and Charles Mann making 12-of-14, most coming in the final five minutes.
Mann, the freshman point guard from Alpharetta, had 18 points with 8 assists and zero turnovers. “He had a really good ballgame,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “He’s got a great example in Kentavious and he’s learning from him.”
Georgia also was 8-of-16 from 3-point range and got 41 points off its bench.
The Vols (17-11, 9-7) came into the game with four players from the Peach State who had accounted for 51.4 percent of their points and 62 percent of assists. They got 52 percent of their scoring Saturday from Jordan McRae of Midway, who poured in a career-high 35 points. Stone Mountain native Kenny Hall added 10. Powder Springs’ Trae Golden struggled with a 1-for-10 shooting night and finished with 4 points.
Fox credited Georgia football coach Mark Richt for helping the Bulldogs “get up off the mat.” The team was especially disillusioned after blowing a 17-point lead and losing to Vanderbilt 63-62 Wednesday night on a winning shot with eight-tenths of a second remaining. Fox said Richt talked to the basketball team on Friday.
“He told them how proud he was of them and how we have been in every game for the last six weeks with a chance to win it,” Fox said. “He just encouraged them to get up off the mat and fight again. That’s what I love about Georgia, because we have great coaches here that support each other.”
The Bulldogs started the game with six turnovers in the first five minutes and fell behind 7-0. “I said that’s the last time Mark Richt talks to our basketball team,” Fox quipped.
But the Bulldogs did fight back and, once they got going, they were tough to stop. Sherrard Brantley’s 3-pointer at the 2:54 mark of the first half gave them 25-14 lead, which represented an 18-point turnaround in just over 13 minutes.
Georgia would not score the rest of the half, however. The Bulldogs led just 25-22 when Caldwell-Pope missed a 3-point try at the halftime buzzer.
Tennessee carried momentum into the second half and took a 41-40 on a McRae 3-pointer at the 12-minute mark.
But Georgia called a timeout and, on the ensuing possession re-took the lead on a Tim Dixon dunk. The Bulldogs would not trail again.
Tennessee kept the game within three to five points until the final five minutes. But then the Bulldogs pulled away, leading by as many as 14 points. They were ahead by 13 when Golden hit a meaningless 3 for the Vols with 16 seconds to go.
“This win puts us back on track,” said Mann, who had season highs in points, assists and free throws. “In the past couple of games we have left the ball in our opponent’s hands so they have determined the outcome. It felt good to have a large margin at the end.”
The win helps Georgia’s bottom line as well. The Bulldogs entered the game in a tie for ninth place in SEC but further distanced itself from the league’s bottom four, which have to play on Wednesday in the SEC tournament.
If the Bulldogs can gain at least a split in their final two games at home against Kentucky on Thursday and on the road at Alabama next Saturday they will finish with a .500 conference record.
“I was really proud of our team, I was proud of our crowd because we beat a good basketball team today.” Fox said. “That’s a terrific basketball team that’s fighting to get into the postseason and should get into the postseason. So it’s a great victory for Georgia and we feel good about it.”