Down the stretch, Georgia Bulldogs still searching for answers

Defining what has ailed Georgia in the past two weeks is relatively easy. Finding the fix quickly is considerably harder. 

While the Bulldogs (13-11, 4-8 SEC) have made no claim on having a scintillating offense (they’re ranked last among 14 SEC teams in points per game), the team’s defense and rebounding prowess enabled them to keep their heads above water for much of the season. 

But in Georgia’s past three games – all substantial losses – its strengths morphed into weaknesses, and the Bulldogs are looking for answers as the season enters its final weeks, starting with a 9 p.m. game Wednesday at Florida (17-8, 8-4).

“Defense is all heart and a little bit of smarts. We’ve got to find our heart,” said Juwan Parker after Georgia’s 78-61 loss to No. 8 Auburn on Saturday. “We’re all positive. We have spirit. We just have to get back to those two things. That’s what we built our foundation on earlier in the season, and that’s what we’ve got to get back to (in order) to get back to winning.” 

In losses to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Auburn, the opposition shot 52.2 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. And the Bulldogs – one of the league’s better teams on the glass -- were outrebounded 97-75.

Is there any way to reverse the trend at this late date, especially in light of the fact that Georgia has probably played itself out of consideration for the NCAA Tournament? 

“We’ve got to get back in the lab and get our defense and rebounding back,” Parker said. “Ever since I’ve been here that’s what we’ve been built on – defending and finishing with a rebound. We didn’t do that (against Auburn), so we’ve got to get it back.” 

The Gators represent the last light Georgia enjoyed before its three-game slump. On Jan. 30 in Athens, the Bulldogs posted a 72-60 victory over then-No. 23 Florida, limiting the Gators to their lowest point total and their second-lowest shooting percentage in league play. Since losing to Georgia, Florida lost to Alabama but has since posted victories over LSU and South Carolina and shares second place behind Auburn in the SEC standings with No. 18 Tennessee (Georgia’s opponent Saturday).

If anyone thinks the Bulldogs have an edge over Florida based on the teams’ previous meeting, it’s not Georgia coach Mark Fox. 

“The fact that we beat Florida the first time isn’t going to be any help on Wednesday night,” Fox said Saturday. “We’ve got to get back to defending like we did against Florida, but we haven’t seen that in a couple of games. We’ll have to regroup and see if we can find an effective way to slow them down.  

“To be honest with you, against Florida, we made some serious errors in how we wanted to play defensively in that game, and it just didn’t get exposed. We have to get more stable there.” 

Considering that the Gators outrebounded South Carolina 46-24 and shot nearly 52 percent against LSU, slowing Florida figures to be a tall order. 

If there was a silver lining for Georgia in what was a very dark cloud Saturday, it was the play of Rayshaun Hammonds, who had 14 points, five rebounds and three assists in 34 minutes of play. The freshman from Norcross got off to a promising start this season, but his production – and then his minutes – started tailing off.  

In the three previous games before Auburn, Hammonds played a grand total of 17 minutes with 11 rebounds and two points.  

“Offensively, he finally came through (against Auburn),” Fox said. “He’s got to learn to play at both ends, but he took a step forward offensively, that’s for sure.” 

Despite Georgia’s recent troubles and his own up-and-down play, the 6-foot-8 Hammonds is ready to continue the battle, starting Wednesday in Gainesville. 

“I’m going to go out there and keep fighting, regardless,” he said.

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