Maybe Georgia is starting to get the hang of this whole SEC basketball thing.
The Bulldogs won their 500th SEC game of all-time Saturday with a 66-58 win over Alabama. Never mind that it took 81 years — second longest among the league’s 10 charter members — to get it.
More important, it made Georgia (8-6) 2-0 in SEC play for the first time since 2002. Also, the Bulldogs avoided a letdown after Wednesday’s emotional 70-64 overtime win over No. 21 Missouri.
“We talked about that with our team,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose father was buried Tuesday in Kansas. “We could throw away that win Wednesday if we came out here today and laid an egg. So we talked about that, and I was really proud that we backed up Wednesday’s win with another one.”
Sophomores Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann deserve a lot of credit. The Bulldogs’ backcourt duo scored 22 points apiece and made the key offensive plays down the stretch.
But as they were against Missouri, defense and rebounding were the keys for Georgia. The Bulldogs shot only 32.6 percent from the field as a team — their lowest mark of the season — yet won with relative ease by winning the rebounding battle 41-32 and holding Alabama to 36 percent shooting. Forward Marcus Thornton added nine points, eight rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots.
Free-throw shooting again made things more difficult for Georgia than they should have been. The Bulldogs missed nine free throws over the last 4:41 as Alabama tried to hack its way back into the game. The Bulldogs were 31-of-44 for the game, with 11 of the 13 misses coming after halftime.
Alabama (7-8, 1-1) was led by senior guard Trevor Releford with 17 points, 15 of them in the second half.
Gaines, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, provided the initial scoring boost for Georgia. He was 6-of-8 shooting in the first half with a career-high four 3-pointers and 16 points. He made one field goal in the second half, but helped stake his team to an 11-point halftime lead.
“I was feeling it,” said Gaines, whose previous scoring high was 21 points against Temple in November. “It kept going in, so I figured I’d keep letting it fly.”
However, Gaines contributed to a second-half scoring drought for the Bulldogs. He was 1-for-6, and they were 4-of-21 (19 percent), after halftime. Twenty-three of Georgia’s points came from the free-throw line.
“I think Kenny thought he could get 40,” Fox said. “He took some shots in the second half where we need to put the reins on him a little bit. But he needs that experience, and it was great for him to have some success.”
Alabama cut what was a 13-point Georgia lead to three points at the 7:35 mark on Releford’s fast-break layup off a turnover. It was the second consecutive giveaway by the Bulldogs, who also allowed a layup on an inbounds play during a two-minute scoring flurry by the Crimson Tide.
But Thornton ended the 6-0 run when he was fouled underneath the Georgia basket and made both free throws. The Bulldogs would add seven more free throws over the next three minutes and were back ahead by nine, 55-46, when Gaines made a pair at the 4:21 mark.
Alabama would get as close as five points twice in the closing stretch, the first time on a Releford drive with 1:02 to go. Georgia made one of six free throws on its next three possessions, but held Alabama in check at the other end. Mann’s free throws with 26 seconds remaining made certain the result would stand up.
Georgia made one field goal — Mann’s driving lay-in at the 3:16 mark was a big one — in the final 13 minutes of play.
“We handled it OK,” Fox said of the tense situation. “Not perfect, but it was a good experience for us.”
The Bulldogs will look to put it to good use on the road Tuesday against Florida (13-2). The No. 10-ranked Gators also are 2-0 in league play.
“Belief is definitely a factor,” Gaines said. “We’ve always believed in each other, we’ve just struggled with executing and defense and rebounding. Now the tides are turning a little bit, and we’re going a pretty good job.”