I’ve always been a fan of Georgia’s athletic rivalry with the Mercer Bears. I’ve seen the Bulldogs play the Baptists in baseball in Macon, in basketball in Macon, and in basketball in Athens, and I hope I’ll get to see the Athenians play the Bears in football in Athens and in lacrosse in Macon, as well.
Because today’s outing in Stegeman Coliseum was an untelevised “businessfan’s special” for the benefit of Athens-area educators and students, however, I did not get the chance to see the Georgia Bulldogs take on a Mercer squad whose scalps this season already included Florida State and Sewanee. Against a Red and Black lineup laden with underclassmen, though, the Bears came up short by a 58-49 margin.
We’re going to be charitable and call this one a defensive struggle, as turnovers and missed shots kept the contest scoreless for more than two minutes before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope turned a steal into a crowd-pleasing fastbreak dunk. Mercer tied the game on a pair of free throws and took the lead with a layup, and the Bears’ 4-2 advantage held up until the clock ticked below 15 minutes.
Caldwell-Pope snarled the score with a jump shot, only to see the Baptists return the favor on their next possession. After Charles Mann evened the game at 6-6, the score remained unchanged until Kenny Gaines knocked one down from three-point range with just under 13 minutes remaining in the first half. Foul shots pulled the Bears within one with eleven minutes to play, then Mann made it 11-8 with a fastbreak layup inside the eight-and-a-half-minute mark.
Mercer hit two shots in a row to take a 12-11 lead, but Georgia answered with another fastbreak layup to take a 13-12 edge with six and a half minutes showing on the scoreboard. A free throw tied it for the visitors, and an exchange of buckets on consecutive possessions made it 15-15. Caldwell-Pope tacked on a trey and a dunk to extend the Athenians’ lead to five with fewer than four minutes to go, but the Bears had a pair of free throws fall to cut their deficit to 20-17.
A flurry of scoring occurred in the final 98 seconds before halftime, as John Florveus hit a jumper, T.J. Hallice buried one from way downtown, Marcus Thornton dropped in a layup, and Mann made two from the charity stripe to give Georgia a 26-20 lead at the break. In the first half, the two teams combined for five offensive rebounds and 19 turnovers. Mercer shot 23.1 per cent from the field (6 of 26), including one of eleven (9.1%) from beyond the arc, and the Bears turned eleven takeaways into zero points. However, the Baptists buried seven of eight free throws to stay within striking distance after 20 minutes of play.
The second half began with Mercer making free throws, jump shots, and treys while the Fox Hounds couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. Trailing, 27-26, with 16 minutes showing on the scoreboard, Georgia turned to Nemanja Djurisic, whose consecutive successful shots from the charity stripe turned a one-point Bulldog deficit into a one-point Red and Black lead. A Djurisic jumper on the Classic City Canines’ next possession extended the Athenians’ advantage to 30-27.
Caldwell-Pope and Sherrard Brantley thereafter answered Mercer free throws with three-point jumpers, putting the Bulldogs out in front, 36-29, with 13 minutes remaining in the game. Both teams then began raining treys, with Jakob Gollon and Anthony White making two for the Bears and Brantley, Gaines, and Vincent Williams draining three for Georgia to give the home team a 47-41 cushion at the eight-minute mark of the second half.
Then, just like that, both teams went ice-cold from beyond the arc, with the Central City’s Gollon, Travis Smith, and Bud Thomas each missing a trey and the Classic City’s Caldwell-Pope jacking up two unsuccessful three-point attempts during a drought that saw the score unchanged until Langston Hall hit the jumper that cut the Red and Black’s lead to four points with four and a half minutes on the game clock.
Caldwell-Pope and Mann then put some distance between the host squad and its guests, together knocking down four free throws and a dunk before a Gollon three-pointer made it 53-46 for the Hoop Dogs with three minutes remaining. Brandon Morris next got into the act with a couple of free throws to send the clock ticking below two minutes with Georgia leading, 55-46. A Kevin Canevari basket from long range cut into that cushion with 43 seconds to play, but Caldwell-Pope answered the ensuing fouls by hitting three of four foul shots.
As a team, the Bulldogs connected on seven of twelve three-point tries and benefited from the contributions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17 points, 9 rebounds), Kenny Gaines (8 points), and Charles Mann (10 points, 7 rebounds). Both clubs shot at a 40 per cent clip from the field in the final 20 minutes, but the Red and Black pulled down 13 defensive rebounds in the second half while draining eleven of 13 free throws.
The optimist in me says that Mercer is the best team Georgia has beaten this season, so this should be taken as a sign of progress. The pessimist in me says the Bulldogs’ 57-point tally is deceptive, dependent as it was upon eleven second-half fouls by the Bears and an overreliance on long-range jumpers. The realist in me says that Mark Fox made changes to his lineup in an effort to give this team some spark, and the Red and Black responded by snapping a three-game losing streak, even if it was against an opponent Georgia has beaten 17 straight times since 1959.