Georgia guard Turtle Jackson looks for space in the Tennessee defense Saturday night. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)
Photo: Crystal LoGiudice/AP
Photo: Crystal LoGiudice/AP

Bulldogs end regular season with another painful loss

There have been some biggish victories - three of them over ranked teams. There have been splashes of bright and promising moments. Because the talent was there.

But, unfortunately for Georgia, that is not how seasons are processed.

You must take the whole of the year.  And, in doing that, the regular season ended Saturday with the distinct impression that any good moments were merely suggestions that these Bulldogs should have been so much better than they are.

What you are left with is the portrait of a program that has undershot its talent, until now, and all that’s left it is some kind of miracle in the conference tournament. They are down to spending their last two dollars on a lottery ticket.   

Let Saturday night’s 66-61 loss to Tennessee to finish the regular season stand as testimony to this whole underwhelming 2017-18. 

You know how the tune goes.

In the first half, the Bulldogs built an 11-point lead over the 16th-ranked Volunteers (leading by eight at the half).

Only to see the good work evaporate in the greater heat of the second half. In the last two minutes, when games are decided, they suffered too many wasted possessions. A charge call on Yante Maten. A travel call on Tyree Crump. An entry pass to the wrong hand of Maten, poked away by a long arm of 6-foot-11 Kyle Alexander. Georgia doesn’t score a single point in the final 3:10, after Maten’s 3 gave the Bulldogs a four-point lead. Tennessee scores the game’s last nine points. Vols win. 

And, so, the crescendo to Georgia’s regular season was the happy howling of more than 22,000 Volunteers fans, shaking the walls of Thompson-Boling Arena. On this night Tennessee was the big surprise that maybe Georgia could have been, joining equally surprising Auburn atop the final regular season standings. (Footnote to the Vols big night: They had lost the past five to Georgia, dating back to 2014, making Saturday all the sweeter).

This clearly was a conference ripe for new leadership. But the Bulldogs never seriously applied for the position.  

So, welcome, Georgia, to the first day of play at the SEC Tournament. Wednesday will get here before you know it.

The Bulldogs came into the season’s finale with the kind of incentive that would get any blue-collar worker’s full attention: A day off. 

A win over the Vols would have assured them a seeding that would excuse them from the first day of play at next week’s SEC Tournament. A loss, and they’d drop a couplpe spots, lose the bye and add just another layer to their improbable pursuit of a tournament victory.

Because, you see, their misses have so tarnished their hits. And for a 16-14 team (7-11 in SEC), winning that conference tournament is a desperate need. It is the reprieve from the governor. The last life raft on the deck of a sinking liner. The best/only hope for a roster that at the dawn of the season you just knew belonged in the NCAA Tournament to actually gain entrance to that affair.

Looks like Georgia will take the most difficult path – hardly a surprise at this point – and face the need to win five games in as many days to make anything usable of this season. Good luck with that.

“It’s a new season,” said a drained Georgia coach Mark Fox Saturday night. “Obviously we haven’t had as good a league season as we hoped and we’ll have to regroup and hopefully we’ll get hot in St. Louis.”

At this stage, after back-to-back crushing end-game losses, the audience that may be hardest to convince is the one in his own locker room.  

Not that Georgia didn’t come out like a welder with a lit torch and an attitude, determined to get that day off. If nothing else, it is a resilient bunch.

That image fits the occasion because this game was real Teamster stuff. A gritty, grease-stained, roll-up-your-sleeves-if-only-you-had-any kind of game. “Both teams really competed,” Fox said. “They had a lot to play for but I thought we did, too.” 

By 11 minutes into the evening, Maten was rubbing his jaw, checking to see if it was still functional. His matchup with Tennessee’s Grant Williams was a 15-rounder, the way they used to make prizefights. On this occasion, Williams had driven his not inconsiderable shoulder into Maten’s face on the way to a basket, and a foul.

Just moments later, Maten just happened to drop a forearm into Williams’ mug while executing a baseline hook shot. Which prompted another of multiple video reviews by the officials to see if anything felonious occured.

The grinding game favored Georgia early. And it rose on some surprising shooting – 7-of-12 on 3’s in the first half (58 percent). Williams and Maten both ended the half with 12 points.

But Tennessee rode its raucous crowd to a comeback, even as Fox used two time outs in first 10 minutes in order to try to keep order in an increasingly rowdy house. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes even had to take the mike himself and tell his people to quit throwing litter on the floor during one heated moment in the last three minutes.

Hitting just 1-of-6 3-pointers in the second half, the Bulldogs did not have the benefit of that shot to bail them out of trouble.

And in Maten – his jaw requiring medical attention at the end of the game – you could almost see the accumulated wear of carrying the Bulldogs all this season in every second-half shot that fell off the edge of the rim like an egg rolling off a slanted table. His only second-half basket was that 3-pointer near the end (he shot 1-of-9 in the half). He finished with 18 in his last regular-season game. Williams had a very tough 22.

“(Maten) didn’t finish as well, maybe, after that,” Fox said of the shot to the jaw. “They really went after each other.”

Maten certainly deserved better this season. He is the best of an exhausted and exhausting season that now trudges on to St. Louis. 

About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for the AJC, mainly for the Sunday section. He covers a range of sports and topics.» If you're not a subscriber, click...