The University of Georgia Men’s Basketball team secured their first conference victory of the season against the Alabama Crimson Tide 82-76 on Tuesday night in Stegman Coliseum.
In what appeared to be the highest attendance at a home game for Georgia so far this year, students brought incredible energy to the atmosphere, flooding the arena in hopes to bear witness to a thematic repeat of the College Football National Championship. As Keon Ellis stepped to the free-throw line facing a 7-point deficit with only 17.3 seconds remaining, it became abundantly clear to the students, who proceeded to fill the coliseum with chants of “Just like football!” that their wishes had been granted. In a post-game press conference, center Braelen Bridges commented on the crowd’s impact on the game, saying that “when the crowd gets loud like that, everybody plays defense harder. Everyone locks into their man, locks into their assignment when the crowd is hyping us up like that. I feel like everything turns up a notch.”
Aaron Cook led the Dawgs offensively, scoring 15 points while adding 4 assists. Jabri Abdur-Rahim was incredible for UGA down the stretch as well, demonstrating impeccable composure as he calmly sunk 10 straight free-throws over the last 5:12 of action, accounting for half of the Bulldogs’ points over that span. Jaden Shackleford, the SEC’s 4th leading scorer and leader in made 3-Pointers, played a tremendous game for the Crimson Tide, scoring 20 points and converting on 6 triples. Keon Ellis also recorded a well-rounded performance for Alabama, dropping 15 points on 5-11 shooting and leading all rebounders with 9.
There was a palpable elevation in intensity for the Bulldogs from the opening tip, as Kario Oquendo was not bashful in quickly letting a wing 3-Pointer fly in the face of his defender on the game’s initial possession to put the Dawgs in the scoring column first. After a bucket down low from Charles Bediako, Oquendo stayed in attack mode to burst into the lane and convert a scooping and-1 layup to put Georgia up 6-2 early. From there, the squads battled back and forth for the entirety of the first half which saw a total of 5 lead changes. Dalen Ridgnal gave the Dawgs a tremendous lift off the bench, bringing ferocious energy to the offensive glass. On the possession following an Ellis free-throw which tied the game for the first time, Ridgnal exploded off the floor to collect a Georgia miss and throw down a thunderous two handed put-back slam, which played a significant role in engaging the home crowd early and, in many respects, set the tone for the remainder of the game. Jaxon Etter was another key first-half contributor for Georgia, as the Junior made the defense pay for losing him on the perimeter in draining back-to-back 3-Pointers to give the Dawgs their largest lead of the night of 8 points at a score of 27-19 with 7:37 remaining in the half. As the momentum seemed to be shifting dramatically in UGA’s favor, Alabama responded with their best scoring run of the contest, putting up 8 unanswered points behind an impressive layup from Jahvon Quinerly and 3-Pointer from Shackleford which tied the game at 27 with 6:18 on the clock. After Georgia stopped the bleeding, Shackleford burned Georgia from deep again, taking advantage of a short closeout before hitting a wing 3-Pointer to give the Crimson Tide their first lead of the night at a score of 30-29 with 4:32 to play in the half. Tyron McMillan gave the Dawgs some great minutes to close out the first half, scoring 5 of Georgia’s 7 points over the last four and a half minutes. Alabama got out in transition effectively as the clock wound down, finding Bediako for two fast-break scores. The Tide also continued to hoist shots from deep, as was expected from the SEC’s leader in 3-Point attempts. Shackleford and James Rojas each converted from behind the arc in the last 4 minutes, which helped to build a 42-36 Alabama advantage heading into halftime.
Jaden Shackleford led all scorers with 16 points at the halftime intermission and had drained 5 of his 7 3-Point tries. In a pregame press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Jaxon Etter commented that running Shackleford off the 3-Point line and limiting his clean looks was an imperative focus for Georgia entering the game, implying that his individual impact would be a crucial deciding factor in the outcome of the game. After an apparent failure to execute that strategy in the first half, the Georgia coaching staff implored its guards to stick with him at all times and play tight on the catch, which would help the Dawgs swing the momentum of the game and prevent him from experiencing the same level of success in the second half, as the Junior put up a mere 4 points on 1-3 shooting for the remainder of the game.
After going scoreless in the first half, star freshman and projected lottery pick JD Davison came out aggressive to start the second, driving the ball to the basket and demonstrating his freakish athletic ability with a hanging, contested finish at the rim before sinking a free-throw on the ensuing possession to give Alabama a 9-point advantage, its largest of the game, at a score of 45-36 with 18:40 to go. As Georgia fans began to fear another second-half collapse, the Dawgs responded with a 12-3 scoring run which would tie the game at 48 with 15:45 remaining. In similar fashion to Saturday’s game against South Carolina, Georgia looked to involve Braelen Bridges early in the second half, as nice entry passes from Cook and Noah Baumann gave the big man some easy scoring chances. Active on the offensive glass, Bridges was also able to create his own opportunities, skying for an impressive offensive rebound before converting an and-1 reverse finish to give himself 7 points during the Bulldog run. After a huge corner 3-Pointer from Cook off an offensive rebound by Oquendo tied the game, Keon Ellis came alive for Alabama, scoring 6 straight points as he demonstrated both his explosiveness in transition and patience in the half-court offense to put the Crimson Tide ahead 54-48 with 13:01 left in the game. As Georgia found themselves in a scoring drought of over 3 minutes, Oquendo, in typical fashion, brought the Dawgs back to life with a flying two-handed baseline dunk before pushing in transition off a defensive rebound to find Cook for an and-1 finish which brought UGA back within 1. After exchanges of both 3-Pointers and layups, a Shackleford 3-Pointer and subsequent free-throw made it a two-possession game as Alabama led 63-58 with 7:19 to play. A layup from McMillan and pair of free-throws from Christian Wright again cut the lead to 1 before an and-1 from Noah Gurley grew the Alabama lead back to 4 with 5:30 left in the contest.
It was at this point that one of the more unusual finishes to a college basketball game that you’ll see unfolded. Down by two possessions, Georgia mounted a comeback that would put them up by 6 with under a minute to play while only making a singular field goal, which came from Bridges with 3:24 to play. In a heroic effort, Abdur-Rahim delivered at the charity stripe time and again for UGA, making 10 consecutive attempts which provided the majority of the Bulldog offense down the stretch. Cook added an additional 3 makes, while Bridges and Oquendo sank 2 and 1, respectively. The Dawgs made 18 foul shots over the last 5:50 of action, whereas Alabama made just 13 during the entire game. The Dawgs did still get two timely field goals during this stretch by way of the aforementioned Bridges bucket and clutch cutting layup from Etter to ice the game with 35 seconds left, but the free-throw barrage certainly gave Georgia a distinct advantage in controlling the flow of the game and ultimately played a huge role in the game’s eventual outcome, as Georgia went on to shock the Tide with the 82-76 victory.
The performance at the foul line in the second half of Tuesday’s game marks Georgia second 20+ free-throw half in as many games. When asked how living at the line has begun to factor into Georgia’s recipe for success in a post-game press conference, Head Coach Tom Crean commented that “it has to… we’re a very good free-throw shooting team, knock on wood, and we’ve got to make sure that we continue to do that, and that we continue to get to the foul line and get in the bonus early.”
Additionally, Crean said, “I’m really proud of these guys, and the staff, for a lot of reasons. We got better between South Carolina and tonight because of the way we prepared and practiced… Nobody’s hanging their heads, there’s tremendous energy, and we’re buying in to the fact that we believe we’re going to win.”
The emotional win on Tuesday marks the Dawgs’ first SEC win of the season as the squad looks to build on their momentum while traveling to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt on Saturday, January 29th at 6:00 P.M.