MBB: Bulldogs fall short in lop-sided performance
Despite a late second-half push, it wasn't enough to overcome Missouri
NASHVILLE, Tn. , -- Game 04 of the 2021 SEC Men's Basketball Tournament played between Missouri and Georgia, Thursday, March 11, 2021, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Georgia head coach Tom Crean was extremely proud of his team on Thursday night, despite the final result.
“I’m proud of their effort,” Crean said following the game. “Our guys battled extremely hard. They never flinched when we got down. It was a highly contested game. The lane was hard to come by. It was hard to get things in that lane, but our guys kept working to figure it out. We had an opportunity at the end to tie it, but we just didn’t get it.”
The No. 10-seeded Bulldogs clawed their way back from a double-digit deficit in the second half, but it wasn’t enough as Missouri held on to win 73-70 in the opening round of the 2021 SEC Tournament.
Georgia sophomore guard Sahvir Wheeler summed up what most were thinking.
“I feel like this is a game we could have won,” Wheeler said.
He’s certainly correct.
With 7:31 remaining, Georgia trailed 62-50, but freshman K.D. Johnson nailed two freebies and made a layup in transition on the ensuing possession to cut the lead to eight. The two teams traded baskets over the next few minutes and the Bulldogs trailed by 10 with 4:52 left until they went on a 9-0 run. Wheeler scored on a fastbreak and notched a pair of free throws while Johnson nailed a triple. Then, in transition, sophomore forward Toumani Camara pulled Georgia to within one with a basket of his own.
With Missouri leading 66-65 with 1:56 left, guard Xavier Pinson was fouled while attempting a shot from beyond the arc. The junior went to the line and made all three shots to extend the Tigers’ lead to four. On the next possession, Wheeler drove the length of the floor and made an athletic play to pull Georgia to within two.
With 19 seconds remaining, Camara was at the line with a chance to tie the game, but a lane violation by grad transfer Justin Kier took that chance away. Camara missed the next free throw and it was rebounded by Missouri’s Kobe Brown, who found Dru Smith as he was fouled.
Despite a desperation 3-pointer by Kier to pull Georgia to within one with 12 seconds left, Smith drained four free throws to close out the game. Georgia got the ball on the last possession of the game, although graduate transfer P.J. Horne couldn’t a good enough shot off in the end.
That was all she wrote for the Bulldogs (14-12, 7-12) and their ‘big dance’ dreams, while on the other hand, the Tigers (16-8, 9-8) live to fight another day in hopes of dancing in March.
It was just a sour end to an up-and-down season for the Bulldogs.
Crean, who just finished up his third year at Georgia, felt like the lane violation was the correct call.
“They ran the lane violation to the letter of the law,” he said. “I just wish that every part of officiating like that was run to the letter of the law. Was he right on the call? Yeah, he says he was, and I’m sure he is because he broke the plane of it. Was it a mistake? Yes. Do I blame Justin? It happens and you’ve got to move on.”
In the end, Wheeler led Georgia with 14 points and 14 assists. Camara followed with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Johnson was the only other player in double figures with 12 points. Kier added nine points and Horne notched eight.
Wheeler felt like Georgia easily could have won that game, but knew it was just on-par for his team in a year like this.
“I think that kind of sums up the season as far as just looking at that run, just how up and down it is in a pandemic,” he said. “This is a first-time experience for everybody, especially playing through a pandemic like COVID-19. It showed the heart and fight that we have as a team not to quit, not to bow down to anyone.”
Even though the NCAA Tournament is out of the picture, Crean pleaded to reporters that his team deserves an NIT bid.
“We’ve told the NCAA we'd definitely opt-in to play in the NIT,” Crean said. “We’ll work very hard at that, and I hope we have that opportunity. I think we’ve earned it. So, I didn't say goodbye to my team in the locker room, and I’m certainly not going to reflect on the season just yet, because my mind is not in any one of those places.”
For Crean, his record at Georgia falls to 41-49, including three losing seasons in conference play. The Bulldogs started off the 2020-21 season with a 7-0 record before entering conference play but lost four consecutive matchups before finally winning a league game. Down the stretch, Georgia pulled off several impressive wins, although two bad losses to South Carolina could have put away the postseason hopes and dreams. An SEC tournament championship would have been the only way Crean’s squad could have gone dancing.
Still, Wheeler feels like progress is being made.
“There’s definitely progress,” he said. “The players have all gotten better under Coach Crean. For us, we’re just looking to take this and grow from it. This group of guys together, we have good chemistry and we wish we could keep playing.”
It may look bad today, but Georgia just needs to get over the hump. It’s worth noting that in Crean’s previous stops at Marquette and Indiana entering his fourth season, it resulted in trips to the Sweet 16 and Final Four, respectively.
Now, Georgia is nowhere near that, although Wheeler feels like his team is almost at the point of breaking through.
“Next year, we’re looking to be top six, top five range,” he said. “I know to some people that might sound crazy, but we’ve been in a few games right there where a couple of possessions here, a couple stops there to end that run, we would be right in these games. Next year, I know I’m going to take it a little bit more personal for the SEC. That’s my personal goal is to finish top five, and I know we can make that happen with these guys here and with guys coming in.”
Georgia will find out on Sunday if it will receive a bid to the NIT.