The University of Georgia Men’s Basketball team’s upset bid against the #1 ranked Auburn Tigers fell short in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday afternoon in Stegeman Coliseum as the Tigers held on to escape with a 74-72 victory.
The game was incredibly close down the stretch, with 7 tied scores as the teams exchanged blows back and forth, and was ultimately decided by its final two possessions. The contest’s wild finish did not lack for controversy, as Georgia’s Jaxon Etter attempted to draw a charge that was not recognized as such by the officiating crew before Wendell Green Jr. made a go-ahead layup with 3.6 seconds remaining.
In a post-game press conference, Head Coach Tom Crean voiced his disapproval regarding the no-call on the game’s penultimate possession, commenting that “Jaxon [Etter] did everything technically perfect on the last defensive possession of the game, from the way it’s been described to me by every referee… I didn’t see that not being textbook.” After falling behind by 2 following the Green layup, the Dawgs still had an opportunity to send the game to overtime or win it with a 3-Pointer, but a last-second half-court heave from Aaron Cook was unable to find its way to the bottom of the net.
Building up to its crazy ending, the game was definitively Georgia’s most exciting of the 2021-2022 campaign, as both Georgia and Auburn fans alike packed into Stegeman for the arena’s first sold-out crowd of the season. Kario Oquendo put forth an incredible performance, attacking the basket with reckless abandon to score a game-high 25 points on 9-18 shooting while also dominating on the defensive end with an astonishing 4 steals. Braelen Bridges and Jaxon Etter also contributed substantially on both ends of the floor, scoring 14 and 13 points respectively while tasked with guarding two of Auburn’s top performers in Walker Kessler and former Bulldog K.D. Johnson. Johnson led Auburn in scoring with 20 points on 8-22 shooting as he appeared to want to put on a show in his old stomping grounds. Wendell Green Jr. added 19 points on 5-17 shooting.
It was truly a tale of two halves for the Bulldogs, who seemed quite fortunate to only trail by just 12 points at the halftime intermission after an abysmal 21% first-half shooting performance on just 6 made field goals. The Dawgs got a plethora of good looks inside in the first period, but Auburn’s inside presence made it hard for Georgia to convert down low. The Tigers tallied 7 blocked shots in the first half while outscoring Georgia 20-8 in the paint. Auburn also started off hot from beyond the arc, making 5 of their 6 3-Pointers in the first half behind 3 connections from Green and one each from Johnson and Jabari Smith.
The Dawgs faired much differently in the second half offensively, surpassing their first half field goal total in just the first 5 minutes as they made 8 of their first 10 tries. Down by 12 after a pair of Smith free-throws, Georgia erupted for an 11-0 scoring run, the largest of the game by either team, to drastically shift the momentum of the game and cut the Auburn lead to just 1 point with 15:16 on the clock. The run was largely sparked by the play of Kario Oquendo, who constantly looked to push the ball up the floor and get easy transition buckets for the Dawgs. The run really took shape as UGA scored 3 fast-break buckets in a row coming on the heels of great team defensive efforts before a 3-Pointer from Etter to cap the run sent the crowd into a frenzy and forced Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl to call a timeout to stop the bleeding. The lead never grew above 4 points for either team for the remainder of the contest. Later in the half, a huge corner three from Noah Baumann tied the game at 56 before a pair of free-throws from Jabri Abdur-Rahim gave the Dawgs their first lead of the night at a score of 58-56 with 8:20 left to play. Neither team made a 3-Pointer over the last 10 minutes of action and instead pounded the ball inside, which gave the game an old-school feel as the two squads went toe-to-toe and battled valiantly down low. After being dominated in the paint in the first half, Georgia outscored Auburn 32-20 in second-half paint points to even the totals between the two teams at 40 each for the game.
The most prominent storyline from Saturday’s game against Auburn was the shocking defensive improvement as compared to Wednesday’s performance against Arkansas. After the Razorbacks put up 99 points on 56% shooting, the Georgia buckled down on defense to hold the #1 team in the nation to under 40% shooting and force 14 turnovers. In a post-game press conference, Etter commented that there was “a togetherness today that wasn’t there against Arkansas. We moved on a string. We were all in gaps…it was a connectivity that was thriving. Guys were working together.” Such a performance should inspire confidence in the Bulldog locker room, as that level of intensity and focus on team defense will constantly help put the Dawgs in a position to win moving forward.
Georgia now prepares to go on the road next week to face arch-rival Florida on Wednesday February 9th in Gainesville.