December 20, 2011

Defense lifts Dawgs

There haven't been many easy ones for the Georgia basketball team, which has struggled for much of the year trying to find consistency on the defensive end.

In fact, second-half breakdowns were the norm until last Saturday victory at Southern Cal, a feat the Bulldogs were able to repeat in Tuesday night's 72-58 win over visiting Mercer.

"I think they had, what, eight minutes in the first 11 minutes of the second half?" head coach Mark Fox said. "That's a pretty good pace right there and we had a lot of guys chip in right there. That was probably the most pleasing part of the game."

Junior guard Vincent Williams agreed.

"We just came out with more energy, knowing that in previous games we'd struggled to come out the second half," Williams said of Georgia, which outscored the Bears 42-28 in the final 20 minutes. "The 10 days we had off since that last game (a 68-56 loss to Georgia Tech on Dec. 7), that's all we've been practicing on, trying to put together 40 minutes."

Senior guard Gerald Robinson Jr. made sure there would be no late-game drama this time.

Leading 57-45 with 6:19 to go, Robinson scored 10 of his team-high 20 points over the last 5:18 enabling the Bulldogs improve to 6-5 in front of a Stegeman Coliseum crowd announced at 5,654.

"It's just a matter of finishing," said Robinson.

The contest was a sharp contrast to last year's game in Macon 56-53 as Tuesday's effort came against a Bears team which took Big East member Seton Hall to the wire last Sunday before losing in overtime 80-57.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mercer," said Fox. "They're a very well-coached team and they have a lot of good players. Coming into tonight I knew we would have to play well to win, and we were able to do that."

The Bulldogs (6-5) also got a boost from senior guard Connor Nolte, who helped pick up the scoring slack from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who only played 24 minutes due to some first-half foul trouble.

Nolte finished with a season-high 11 points, nine coming on a trio of 3-pointers. Caldwell-Pope finished with eight points. Williams equaled Nolte's output with 11.

Tied 30-30 at the half, Georgia was forced to play much of the first 20 minutes without Caldwell-Pope, who picked up his second foul with 14:56 on the clock.

Pope, who was only in the game for six minutes, didn't score a single point, forcing his teammates to try and produce some offense without him.

It took some doing.

Mercer led for most of the first half until a bucket by Williams tied the game until a Tim Dixon basket gave Georgia a 22-21 lead with 4:26 remaining.

The Bears (7-5) scored the next five points to go back up by four before the Bulldogs came back to tie the game at 30 on a pair of 3-pointers by Connor Nolte, his second coming with five seconds left in the half.

"Connor's 3-pointer was huge," Robinson said. "He contributed a lot. He made a lot of impact plays."

It was a rare offensive outburst for Nolte, who joked after the game that it was just the first time in two years that he had been brought to the post-game interview room.

"That three was definitely huge in my mind," Nolte said of his shot just before the end of the half. "It was really big for us momentum wise, and honestly, when I shot it I thought I left too much time on the clock because I wanted to make sure we got the last shot."

Georgia returns to action Thursday when the Bulldogs host Furman, one of three home games remaining in December (Dec. 27 against Winthrop and Dec. 30 against Delaware State) before kicking off SEC play on Jan. 7 against Alabama.