Georgia’s save-our-coach crusade just got interesting. The 12th-seeded Bulldogs won on a day they were ticketed as the supporting act, and now they’re 40 percent of the way to what would be the school’s most improbable championship since … well, 10 years ago in this tournament under markedly similar circumstances.
Georgia upset Missouri 62-60 on Thursday despite the return, after a four-month absence and back surgery, of the heralded freshman Michael Porter Jr. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch featured MPJ, as it called him, at the top of its front page. In this market, MPJ was all that mattered. In the game, he mattered not very much. He scored 12 points, but needed 17 shots. He and teammates never seemed to mesh.
The Bulldogs fell behind 10-0 and the home-style crowd was roaring, but what happened next changed this game and maybe the course of Georgia basketball. The 12th seed held Mizzou scoreless on 14 consecutive possessions, a run that saw the Bulldogs outscore the Tigers 19-2 and build a working lead of their own. They led 33-24 at the half, 36-24 just afterward.
Even when Missouri finally steadied itself and forged a 39-all tie, Georgia was undaunted. It scored the next eight points. Turtle Jackson drove for an up-and-under layup. Tyree Crump made an 18-footer after missing a 19-footer. Nicolas Claxton, a 6-foot-11 freshman, made a 3-pointer. The Bulldogs would lead the rest of the way, which isn’t to say the final moments weren’t frazzled.
Yante Maten saved a key possession by bouncing the ball off a Tiger when trapped on the baseline. On the subsequent inbounds pass, Maten nailed a corner jumper to push Georgia’s lead back to four points. After Porter’s trey cut the lead to a point with a minute remaining, Maten missed and Porter hoisted another 3-pointer. This one hit the front rim.
Rayshaun Hammonds made one of two free throws, the miss rebounded by Claxton, who was himself fouled. He missed both. Missouri rebounded and called timeout with 7.1 seconds remaining. The final shot fell to Kassius Robertson, whose trey-to-win from the left side clanked. Georgia had won exactly the sort of game it had lost all season.
Back at the start, when the Bulldogs were struggling just to make a shot, Mark Fox did a strange thing. After Maten’s 3-pointer finally assured one and all that Georgia wouldn’t be shut out, Georgia’s coach called timeout. Not before it scored, but after. Why?
Fox: “We needed to just get in the right mental state. We were off-center from the place we needed to be. I wanted to fight to get that first basket before I bailed them out.”
And then the coach who’s coaching for his job settled his players, and from then on they were the better team. Afterward he related what he said in the winning locker room: “In life, and in basketball, when the going gets tough, some people run for the hills and others try to climb them.”
His Bulldogs aren’t yet halfway to the summit, but they’re playing like a whole new team. Yes, it’s a shame these players weren’t doing this in January and February; if they had, they wouldn’t need to win the tournament to make the NCAA field. Still, we’ve been reminded in the two games here why hopes for these Bulldogs were so high.
They’re talented, and their freshmen – Teshaun Hightower scored 11 first-half points, and Claxton was immense all game – are looking like real players now. Shouldn’t Fox get some credit, albeit belated, for that? Or was Thursday simply a dead-cat bounce?
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin didn’t feel as if he’d just been undone by a garden-variety 12th seed. “At this time of the year, I don’t look at numbers,” he said. “They’ve got one of best players in all of college basketball, they’re battle-tested and they’re fighting for something.”
This was a much bigger step than beating Vanderbilt on Wednesday, but the Bulldogs can’t stop to rest. They next play Kentucky, which has been here for two days without having had to play. They’re still in the tougher half of the bracket, even though Texas A&M was undone by Alabama and Collin Sexton of Pebblebrook High in Thursday’s careening opener.
There are reasons to believe that this mountain will indeed prove too tall, but it hasn’t yet. As long as you’re still in it, you’ve got a shot. Georgia just won a game it wasn’t supposed to win, which means, at least for another day, the Bulldogs get to keep playing and Fox gets to keep coaching. Two down, three to go.