Just five days after being invited to the dance, Georgia was abruptly forced to leave. March Madness can be cruel in that way. A five-month long season can come to an end in the span of a couple of hours.
Such was the case for the Georgia Bulldogs on Friday in Charlotte.
Everything started off so well. The Dawgs made 3 of their first 6 shots from the floor, and after a pair of free throws from Marcus Thornton, UGA led 11-5 with 14:23 to go in the first half.
Unfortunately, this lead was the biggest and only one that Coach Mark Fox’s team would own on the afternoon.
From that point, everything began to fall apart for UGA. The Dawgs turned in their worst defensive performance of the season, in my opinion. Georgia looked mystified in defending Michigan State screens, unable to decide how they wanted to attempt to stop it.
The result: State either scored easy dunks when the post player slipped the screen, or one of the MSU guards was left wide open for a three, a shot that the Spartans did not struggle with on Friday, hitting 7 of 18 from beyond the arc.
In addition to their ineffective half court defense, Georgia refused to get back on misses and turnovers, which led to 19 fast break points for the Spartans (UGA had just 8).
Speaking of turnovers, the Dawgs had 10 at the break to go along with a team field goal percentage of just 28% – all of which enabled Michigan State to take a commanding 35-22 advantage into the intermission.
However, despite the Dawgs’ sloppy play, they still had their chances in the second half. Twice Georgia possessed the ball down 39-37 with under 14 minutes to play and a chance to tie or take the lead, but all the Dawgs could muster were three misses and a turnover. MSU then put together an 8-2 run that boosted the score up to 47-39, in favor of the Spartans.
But credit Mark Fox’s team for fighting till the very last second, as they have all season. Even though UGA trailed by 12 points with less than 90 seconds remaining, the Dawgs continued to attack the basket and draw fouls. Georgia cut the Spartan lead to as low as 66-63 with only 21 seconds left, but Tom Izzo’s team stepped up and connected on its free throws, earning the 70-63 victory.
In its biggest game of the season, UGA failed to convert, hitting only 33% of its field goals and just 28% from beyond the arc. Charles Mann played strong, leading the team with 19 points, and Kenny Gaines chipped in 15 points in just 20 minutes of play.
Marcus Thornton finished with a double-double, scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 boards, but he did not have his best game. Offensively, Thornton looked similar to a version of himself from his sophomore year, unable to finish near the bucket, where he made only 2 of 8 shots. He also struggled to defend State’s Brandon Dawson, who scored all 14 of his points in the second half.
Neme Djurisic and J.J. Frazier had tough games as well. Neme hit just 2 of his 9 attempts from the floor for 7 points, and J.J. failed to knock down a single field goal, turning in a goose egg in the stat sheet. In the last several games, Frazier has begun attempting more shots from inside the lane, which haven’t led to many buckets, possibly due to his small stature.
UGA ends the season 21-12 after the second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament.
I found it shocking when they flashed on the screen that this year was Michigan State’s 18th consecutive tournament appearance, a feat that seems unimaginable to a UGA basketball fan, pure fantasy. Playing in the NCAA Tournament is something that happens for Georgia every five or six years, but for Tom Izzo’s teams, it’s an expectation.
Coach Mark Fox and his staff I’m sure would love to create similar expectations in Athens.