- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Half-court buzzer-beaters, last-second jump shots, ill-timed and questionable whistles -- all of those elements have contributed to a series of last-minute losses for Georgia in the last two months.
“We keep it interesting,” said Bulldogs forward Nemanja Djurisic, whose team’s most recent loss came Saturday, when Alabama’s Trevor Releford drained a 60-footer at the buzzer to give the Crimson Tide a 61-58 victory.
But while Djurisic and the Bulldogs have lost more than their fair share of heartbreakers since late January, they have also proved something to themselves.
“We know we can compete with any team in the league if we play the way we can play to win,” Freshman All-SEC point guard Charles Mann said. “So that’s not really a big problem with us. It gave us a lot of confidence.”
This young Georgia team got off to an atrocious start, first by dropping seven of their first nine games of the season and then by starting SEC play with a 1-4 mark. And yet as the season progressed, SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the way, freshmen like Mann, forward Brandon Morris and shooting guard Kenny Gaines began to settle in and the Bulldogs suddenly became competitive.
Entering Thursday’s SEC tournament opener against LSU (18-11, 9-9 SEC), Georgia (15-16, 9-9) has won eight of its last 13 conference games -- and every game the Bulldogs lost easily could have been a victory. Their widest margin of defeat in that 13-game stretch was a 10-point loss at Ole Miss, but that came in overtime after forward Donte Williams missed a tip-in that would have won the game at the end of regulation. Including that loss, Georgia’s average margin of defeat in those games is just 4.6 points.
“You can’t come out every game and play the best, but in the games where we didn’t do that, we still managed to fight back somehow and get the lead or take it to the last possession of the game,” said Djurisic, who averaged 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game over the last month of the season after getting off to a poor start. “Sometimes we had some luck and sometimes we didn’t.”
The Bulldogs will probably need some luck to stick around long in Nashville during the conference tournament. While Georgia beat LSU 67-58 on Jan. 19 for their first league win, Thursday’s victor gets the dubious honor of facing SEC regular-season champion Florida (24-6, 14-4) in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Of course the Bulldogs’ main goal entering the tournament is to win every game and claim the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. Even if they are unable to do that, the Bulldogs might need to win at least a game or two to claim a spot in the NIT, which no longer requires entrants to own at least a .500 record, but has not invited a sub-.500 team since that requirement was dropped.
Georgia coach Mark Fox said Tuesday, however, that the Bulldogs would be interested in participating in the NIT -- but not the CBI or another lower-tier postseason tournament -- if the possibility arises.
“I think we have completed the paperwork for the NIT -- our administration has done that, so I don’t know the details any more than that,” Fox said.
But playing in the NIT, or even against Florida for that matter, is not Georgia’s priority just yet. Fox and his players emphasized that they were able to recover their season by not looking too far ahead and focusing on the next game.
For now, that means they’re steadying their focus on an LSU team that has closed the season on an 8-4 streak of its own.
“Whoever wins the tournament is going to have to play well and they’re going to have to play well at both ends and play consistently. It’s a game at a time,” Fox said. “LSU has a club that’s played very well as of late. They’re a good basketball team and for us, the focus has to be on just winning that game. And if you can win the next game, then you give yourself a chance to play another one.”
(All times Eastern)
All games on SEC Network and ESPN3
12 South Carolina vs. 13 Mississippi State, 7:30 p.m.
11 Texas A&M vs. 14 Auburn, 10 p.m.
All games in SEC Network and ESPN3
8 Georgia vs. 9 LSU, 1 p.m.
5 Tennessee vs. South Carolina-Mississippi State winner, 3:30 p.m.
7 Arkansas vs. 10 Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.
6 Missouri vs. Texas A&M-Auburn winner, 10 p.m.
1 Florida vs. Georgia-LSU winner, 1 p.m. (ESPNU)
4 Alabama vs. Tennessee-South Carolina/Mississippi State winner, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
2 Kentucky vs. Arkansas-Vanderbilt winner, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network and ESPN3, ESPNU in select markets)
3 Ole Miss vs. Missouri-Texas A&M/Auburn winner, 10 p.m. (SEC Network and ESPN3, ESPNU in select markets)
Both games on ABC
Semifinals 1 p.m.
Semifinals, 3:30 p.m.
Finals, 1 p.m.