Mark Fox arrived in New Orleans sporting an all-time 2-2 record in SEC Tournament action; the Georgia Bulldogs’ "Fiery Librarian" previously had won both openers yet lost both second-round matchups. The last time the Red and Black went "one and done" in the league tourney was in Pete Herrmann’s last game as the Hoop Hounds’ interim coach . . . and the team to whom the Athenians lost was none other than the Mississippi St. Bulldogs.
The Fox Hounds arrived in New Orleans on the wrong side even of the NIT bubble and with little history of success in the SEC Tournament. In 1933, the Southeastern Conference played its first league tourney in Atlanta, where Georgia lost its opening outing to the Tulane Green Wave, falling by a 46-33 margin. (Incidentally, the Bulldogs scored an identical number of points in the first game of the following year’s SEC Tournament in a 33-19 win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. De-fense!) Ending men’s basketball season with a whimper, rather than a bang, historically has been the norm for a Red and Black program desperately in need of a spark if ever March is consistently to become the time the Bulldogs are exciting, rather than the time the Bulldogs are exiting.
Rick Stansbury arrived in New Orleans as Mississippi State’s all-time winningest head basketball coach and a testament to the general mediocrity of men’s hoops in the SEC. In nine of his 14 seasons as a skipper in the league, his Bulldog squads have finished the regular season with records between 7-9 and 9-7 in conference play, a feat his clubs have achieved for four straight seasons. Coach Stansbury’s MSU outfits nevertheless finished in the top two in the West in seven of the ten campaigns preceding the present one, yet he has never made it past the second round of an NCAA Tournament in a half-dozen tries. His overwhelming averageness stood as a stinging reproach to the Red and Black, whose own historic hardwood tradition has fallen so far short of Coach Stansbury’s middling standards that they barely warrant mention as an also-ran in next season’s Legends Classic field.
The Magnolia State Mongrels arrived in New Orleans looking for revenge for last month’s Georgia win in Starkville and convinced their postseason prospects were dependent upon beating the Classic City Canines, though the latest bracket projection cast MSU as a ten seed. (Yeah, I remember what it was like to be a ten seed. . . .)
Thus was the stage set for a fast-paced first half in which our Bulldogs were up, 5-1, two minutes into the contest before their Bulldogs battled back to a 14-7 lead in a six-minute span during which Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (twice), Nemanja Djurisic, Gerald Robinson, and Dustin Ware all missed jump shots and John Florveus, bless his heart, missed a layup.
Mississippi State had extended its advantage to 23-15 by the time seven minutes showed on the game clock, but a Robinson dunk sparked a Georgia run during which Caldwell-Pope knocked down back-to-back jumpers and drained a free throw to cut the deficit to 23-22 a minute and a half later. A Caldwell-Pope trey inside the three-minute mark tied the game at 25, and Robinson coaxed a foul shot to fall to put the Red and Black up by a point as the clock ticked under two minutes. The Classic City Canines headed to the locker room holding a 31-29 edge.
For the first three minutes of the second half, neither team could’ve hit water if it had fallen out of a boat, as State’s Jalen Steele sunk the only bucket for either team before Ware hit two from beyond the arc and another with a toe on the arc. In a three-minute stretch, Georgia scored a dozen points to build up a 43-34 advantage.
A State time out followed, but the tone of the next six and a half minutes had been set: Georgia retained the hot hand, Djurisic dominated the boards, and the Red and Black maintained a lead that hovered continuously in the vicinity of ten points. Following the TV time out with just under seven minutes left to play, Donte` Williams made a free throw, Robinson slammed home a dunk, and the Fox Hounds led by a 57-46 margin.
Coach Stansbury’s Bulldogs continued to play hard and make free throws and threes, however, so Mississippi State hung tough and clawed back, pulling to within 60-57 on a three-point jumper by Steele with 3:50 remaining in the game. Djurisic poured in the game’s next four points, but he also committed the foul that allowed Steele to drop two free throws, so the Fox Hounds were ahead, 64-59, with 89 seconds left. Georgia held on to claim the improbable 71-61 victory.
At the end of the
day night, the answer to my question was that this game mattered. It mattered because, even though I knew nothing much really was on the line, I still stayed up to watch it, and I still was thrilled by each bucket and rebound, just as I still was anguished by every miss and miscue. It mattered because every win, no matter how seemingly inconsequential on its individual merits in the moment, serves as further proof that Georgia basketball is a rising, and not a setting, sun. It mattered because it matters any time a group of University of Georgia undergraduates represents the institution in competition with students enrolled at another college.
It mattered because it matters to me that the Red and Black will be playing on Friday. I’ll see you back here then.