My son and I have attended a Georgia-Mercer men’s basketball game, and we have attended a men’s basketball game in Stegeman Coliseum, so, last night, we combined the two and attended the Georgia-Mercer men’s basketball game in Stegeman Coliseum, where we saw the Georgia Bulldogs defeat the Mercer Bears, 72-58.
We had better seats this time---Row 14 of Section U, right on the aisle, if you must know---and we were in our seats by tip-off, though just barely; Thomas and I were in line at the concession stand while the national anthem was being played. The Fox Hounds got off to a slow start, playing impatiently, selecting their shots poorly, and generally appearing unfocused in the early going. The home team was not helped by the fact that some shots that should’ve fallen simply didn’t, and, nearly nine minutes into the contest, the Baptists held a 16-8 advantage.
A loss to the visitors wasn’t altogether unthinkable---Mercer, after all, had won 23 of the first 75 meetings in an in-state series dating back to 1907, and the Bulldogs had beaten the Bears by a scant three points in Macon one year earlier---but the Red and Black rebounded, literally: Georgia held the edge on the boards, leading 41-34 over the course of 40 minutes.
The Athenians kept themselves in the game with eight-of-18 three-point shooting, including one from behind the arc fired by Connor Nolte with two seconds remaining in the first half. The bucket snarled the score at 30 heading into the break and put Nolte on his way to a career-best 11 points. That feat was matched by Vincent Williams, whose 11 points also set a new high water mark for him as a collegian.
Nolte’s tying three to close out the opening 20 minutes gave the Bulldogs a measure of momentum, of which they took advantage in the second period. Georgia outscored Mercer by a 16-3 margin in the initial eight minutes following intermission, and the Bulldogs limited the Bears to just eight points in the first 11 minutes of the second half. The Red and Black played a more disciplined game after the break, fouling infrequently and draining their free throws to preserve their lead. Over the course of the evening, Georgia shot a little better than 60 per cent from the charity stripe (16 of 26) and a little better than 40 per cent from the field (24 of 59).
The Hoop Dogs defended the Baptists well, though Mercer kept battling for 40 minutes, manufacturing a late 13-4 stretch that brought the Bears to within ten. Fortunately, Gerald Robinson caught fire in the wake of the break, pouring in 12 of his team-high 20 points in the final 20 minutes while Donte’ Williams topped the squad in rebounds and steals with eight and three, respectively. The Classic City Canines continue to show improvement on defense, as a squad that surrendered 70 points in three of four games between November 21 and November 28 now has held three of its last four opponents under 60 points.
Given Georgia’s struggles with Mercer in Macon a year ago, this was a good win for the Bulldogs, but the Red and Black remain very much a work in progress. Georgia has enough raw athleticism to score when one guy goes coast-to-coast on a fast break, but the Fox Hounds can’t count on being given such chances when they notch four steals to Mercer’s eight and commit twelve turnovers to the Bears’ seven.
The Athenians continually display a tendency either to shoot too soon when there is no need to hurry or to pass the ball around the perimeter before launching a desperation heave with time winding down. It felt like most of Georgia’s shots were fired with over 25 seconds on the shot clock or with under five seconds on the shot clock. Getting down the court, getting set, and working the ball inside is not yet a strength of this team, and, consequently, the Classic City Canines went into hibernation offensively when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was sidelined after getting into foul trouble early. The result was that the freshman, who is the team’s leading scorer, managed only eight points, and his absence left the offense noticeably in the doldrums.
Fortunately, these problems all are fixable through coaching, and chemistry and maturity will come with time as these players find their footing, settle into their roles, and gain more experience sharing the court with one another. The process is slow, but Mark Fox’s method is steady, and the Bulldogs now find themselves back above .500 and carrying a two-game winning streak into a soft holiday slate featuring the Furman Paladins on Friday, the Winthrop Eagles on December 27, and the Delaware St. Hornets on December 30 before conference play commences in January.