Kenny Gaines carries UGA past Murray State

Kenny Gaines must not of liked the idea of starting out 0-2 this season.

The senior from Atlanta torched Murray State for a career-high 35 points, simply willing his Bulldogs to their first win of the season.

With 4:11 left in the game, the Racers jumped ahead 50-48 following a pair of free throws from point guard Bryce Jones, erasing a Georgia lead that had been as high as 8 points just 5 minutes earlier.

Unfortunately for Murray, though, their comeback would end there as Kenny Gaines rattled off three-pointers on the next three possessions for UGA, and after his free throw with 1:35 remaining Georgia held a 58-52 lead that they would not relinquish, ultimately winning this one 63-52.

The other major highlight of the night other than Gaines was the Dawgs’ defense, which looked much improved since the debacle against Chattanooga last Friday.  Georgia consistently closed out strong on the Racers, holding them to just 30% from the floor and only 17% from beyond the arc.  UGA also did a great job of limiting the Racers to just one shot – Murray managed only 10 offensive rebounds because Georgia hauled down over 75% of the Racer misses, which led to just 3 second-chance points for MSU.

While Murray shot the ball poorly, Georgia shot it worse, connecting on under 30% from the field.  Kenny Gaines made 10 of his 18 field goal attempts, but the rest of the Dawgs hit under 18% of theirs.  J.J. Frazier was 1 of 11 and Charles Mann 0 for 7.

Yante Maten grabbed 10 rebounds, but he looked lost on offense, missing a plethora of hook shots that led to a 2 for 8 shooting performance. Hopefully Maten has more in his arsenal than the hook, or UGA is going to struggle to find offense in the paint because right now the Dawgs do not have any sort of productivity coming from that area of the floor.

Freshman Mike Edwards scored just 2 points because he missed a couple of easy put backs, but he was very active on the glass, snagging 8 rebounds in 26 minutes (3 of them offensive).  As the season progresses, Edwards may play his way into the starting five with his athleticism.

The only other tidbit of interest from this one was Coach Mark Fox’s decision to sit senior Charles Mann for the game’s final 5 minutes.  Even when UGA had taken control of the game thanks to Gaines, Mann remained on the bench.  Mann’s free throw shooting continues to be a problem (1 of 2 last night), so it’s possible that Fox saw him as a liability down the stretch once the Dawgs had the lead.  To Mann’s credit, he was the loudest cheerleader on the UGA bench up until the final horn.

This win gets Georgia to an even 1-1, with a chance to get above .500 right before turkey day as they host High Point on Wednesday here in Athens.

Georgia’s aggressive non-conference schedule

The Dawgs ended last season with an RPI of 37, which was certainly bolstered by playing the 33rd most difficult schedule in the country, according to ESPN. Coach Mark Fox made it a point to shore up the out of conference games leading up to SEC play, and his strategy paid off as Georgia maintained a solid RPI throughout the season, enabling them to earn an at-large birth into the NCAA tournament (of course, playing Kentucky twice in a year helped as well).

This season, UGA’s conference schedule should be slightly better considering the Dawgs only have to play Coach Cal’s team once. However, Georgia’s pre-SEC schedule looks rather daunting. Coach Fox’s team will play five teams from Power 5 conferences – Seton Hall, Kansas State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Baylor – before embarking upon league play.

Additionally, the Dawgs will take on some of the best teams that the Mid-Major ranks have to offer in Murray State, Winthrop and Robert Morris. Since 2010, Murray State has won the Ohio Valley Conference twice, and they’ve played for the championship the last three years.

Winthrop has been a powerhouse within the Big South for over a decade, appearing in 7 of the last 11 championship games, and winning 5 of those contests.

Only once in the past 7 seasons has the Northeast Conference championship game not included Robert Morris (2013) – the Colonials have won three league crowns during that same time frame.

Playing these types of games against smaller schools is always tricky for a team from a power conference because winning is expected and rarely doted upon, while losing can prove to be disastrous when the NCAA Tournament committee is looking at a body of work on Selection Sunday. Murray State, Winthrop and Robert Morris will all be fully-capable of winning in Athens and derailing UGA’s season if the Dawgs do not give them the respect that they undoubtedly deserve.