The University of Georgia Men’s Basketball team suffered a tough road loss on Wednesday night to the #2 ranked Auburn Tigers 83-60.
Walker Kessler dominated inside for the Tigers, scoring 15 points on 7-11 shooting and recording 6 blocked shots while 6 Auburn players scored in double figures. Wendell Green Jr. also notched a double-double with 12 points and 11 assists. Christian Wright gave the Dawgs a tremendous contribution and led all scorers with 16 points, converting on 8 of his 9 free-throw attempts.
The Dawgs were without the services of leading scorer Kario Oquendo on Wednesday who was ruled out with an injury shortly before tip-off. The emerging star was sidelined after suffering a lower-body injury on Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt.
The Dawgs came out strong to start the game and made a concentrated effort to attack the paint and get Braelen Bridges early low post touches. After two buckets underneath from Bridges, a long two from Wright and free-throw from Jaxon Etter to combat two 3-Pointers from Allen Flanigan and jumper from Kessler, Georgia trailed by 1-point entering the first media timeout at a score of 8-7 with 15:03 remaining in the half.
Auburn arena was rocking from well before tip-off until the final buzzer sounded as the energized student body packed the building to watch likely the best team in the recent history of its program, which made for an incredibly hostile road environment in which to play. The Bulldogs handled the pressure of the atmosphere well early, but the game quickly got out of reach after the first timeout as Auburn’s deep and talented roster began to demonstrate why many experts consider them a legitimate national title contender.
The Tigers increased their assertiveness on both ends of the floor following the break, scoring 8 unanswered points and collecting 3 Georgia turnovers over a 1:32 stretch of gameplay to build a 16-7 advantage. After a layup from Aaron Cook to halt the UGA scoring drought, a 3-Pointer from Jaylin Williams gave Auburn its first double-digit lead of the ball game with 11:25 to play in the half. A quick 5-point scoring spurt from the Dawgs consisting of a jumper from Cook and tough and-1 fast break finish through heavy contact from Wright temporarily brought Georgia back within striking distance as they faced only a 5-point deficit. On the ensuing possession, the first bucket from projected top-5 NBA draft pick Jabari Smith kickstarted a devastating 29-8 scoring run for the Tigers as former Bulldog K.D. Johnson took advantage of clean looks from deep in sinking 3 3-Pointers over that interval. The barrage spanned almost 7 minutes of action as Auburn converted on 12 of their 17 attempts from the floor while Georgia recorded 4 turnovers to only three made field goals before finding themselves down by 26 points at a score of 48-22 with under 3 minutes left in the half. The Tigers held a 52-27 lead at the halftime intermission.
Despite the rocky finish to the first period, the Dawgs refused to quit and showed tremendous resilience and toughness throughout the second half. Following a dunk from Kessler at the 16:28 mark to give Auburn a 26-point advantage, Georgia hunkered down defensively to keep the Tigers at bay without a made field goal for a 4:38 stretch as they carved in the lead to reduce the deficit to 16 points. The Dawgs attacked the rim ferociously and effectively, as all 4 of their made field goals during the scoring run came by way of a layup in the paint. Auburn responded with 3-Pointers on consecutive possessions from Green and Smith, but Noah Baumann answered with his own pair of triples to keep the lead at 16 points at a score of 68-51 with 9:58 remaining in the contest. The momentum momentarily looked to be shifting in the Bulldogs’ favor before turnovers on 4 straight offensive possessions for Georgia facilitated a 9-2 Auburn scoring run over the next 4:04 of play effectively put the game out of reach as the Tigers grew their advantage back to 23 points with 5:22 to go.
In a post-game press conference, Head Coach Tom Crean accepted accountability for the stall in Georgia’s accumulating momentum, commenting that “we cut it to 16 in the second half, and then I subbed. And I’m kicking myself for subbing, because we were making a run.”
Auburn handled business over the last 5 minutes of action to maintain their 23-point lead and clinched an 83-60 victory.
The size differential between the two frontcourts proved a critical factor in Wednesday’s game, as Auburn was able to control the paint on both ends of the floor as evidenced by their 10-2 and 16-8 advantages in blocked shots and offensive rebounding, respectively. During his interview, Crean acknowledged his squad’s inherent physical disadvantage when playing a tall team like Auburn, saying that “we don’t have a defensive forward really outside of Jaxon (Etter) that can guard the big three-fours.” This posed matchup problems throughout the entire game for Georgia as the Dawgs began the game assigning the 6’3” 185-pound point guard Christian Wright to guard the 6’10” 220-pound 5-star forward Jabari Smith. To his credit, Wright was up to the task and did a phenomenal job in refusing to let Smith take advantage of the height differential by holding him scoreless before checking out of the game, but the matchup itself was emblematic of the overall physical disparity between the two rosters at the forward position.
The loss on Wednesday brings the Dawgs to 5-12 on the season as they fall to 0-5 in SEC action. The squad now prepares for another road test as they search for their first conference victory against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday afternoon in Columbia.