In one of the wildest and more entertaining basketball games at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in recent years, the Tigers jumped on the Bulldogs early, held off a couple of UGA surges and put a 75-72 licking on the Dawgs in a physical and contentious contest.
"That was just what this team needed," said a beaming Brandon Robinson, one of four freshmen that Coach Cliff Ellis started.
With Robinson and rookies Marco Killingsworth, Lewis Monroe and Dwayne Mitchell in the starting lineup, the freshmen staked the Tigers to a quick 10-0 edge. When Ellis pulled all five starters (Derrick Bird was the fifth), the group got a standing ovation at the 14:25 mark.
Another freshman, walk-on guard Nathan Watson, nailed the next two baskets to put the Tigers on top 14-4. Auburn's first basket by a veteran came at the 10:30 mark when Adam Harrington's first three-pointer of the game moved the Tigers on top 17-6. It was the junior's third and final trey that really got things stirred up, though.
With 2:01 to play and the Tigers trailing 60-57, Harrington buried a three-pointer from past the top of the circle. Battling for rebounding position under the basket, Auburn center Kyle Davis was elbowed by Steve Thomas. An off-balance Davis retaliated with a half push, half punch as he turned to get back on defense.
Thomas then chased Davis, who headed to the Auburn bench. Thomas, who was called for a foul on the play, never caught Davis but he crashed into Auburn players and coaches who stayed in the bench area. Daniels flattened an official during the bedlam by running over him. Meanwhile, UGA star Jarvis Hayes knocked down another official but, amazingly, was allowed to stay in the game. Daniels and Davis were ejected and will have an automatic one-game suspension.
Ellis, who had a front row view of all of the action, said that the game video would speak for itself. Harrick, who was at the other end of the floor, claimed he saw Auburn's Davis punch his player. "I think cool heads need to prevail," Ellis said. "I would rather not say anything that would drive the conference office or anybody else crazy. I was proud of our team for the way we refrained. It could have been ugly." Ellis said he didn't want Davis to make a statement after the game because the sophomore center was angry about the incident.
Harrick said, "From my standpoint, I saw Davis hit him. Thomas told me he did not hit Davis back. He was chasing him, but he didn't hit. him I saw Davis swing at him and hit him right in the mouth. I want to watch the tape and see what he says because the consequences for Auburn is not real steep, but for us the magnitude is huge." (UGA plays Florida in the next game.)
When asked if he saw Hayes hit an official, Harrick said, "No. Did he? I didn't see. I don't think they saw everything that went on. They couldn't. There wasn't a monitor, so you couldn't check to see."
Georgia, which was able to get away with pushing on offense and elbowing on defense in the first half, paid a heavy price for that strategy in the second half. Auburn got to the foul line just three times in the first half, but shot 34 in the final 20 minutes. Six of those foul shots came on the game-turning sequence.
After Bird had buried a baseline jumper with 53 seconds left to put the Tigers up 62-60, seven seconds later UGA forward Chris Daniels was called for an offensive foul as he pushed Auburn's Robinson. "Yeah, it was a foul," the Auburn freshman said. "He had been pushing me the whole game."
That call sent UGA coach Jim Harrick into a tirade. He charged the officials on the court and was ejected after two technical fouls. Bird got the call on the four technical foul shots. After missing the first, he made three to put the Tigers on top 65-60. "We showed a lot of heart in this game," Bird said. "We wanted it more."
Then, Robinson got to shoot the two free throws from the personal foul. He made both to put the Tigers on top 67-60.
However, Georgia didn't quit. Rashad Wright hit a layup with 43 seconds left to cut the gap to 67-62. Auburn's Marquis Daniels then hit 1-2 free throws with 40 seconds left to make the lead 68-62. AU then let Wright score an uncontested layup at the 34-second mark on what Robinson called a defensive mixup.
Daniels was fouled with 33 seconds left and made two free throws to stretch the lead to 70-64. Even that lead was not safe.
Ezra Williams scored on a layup with 26 seconds to play to cut the gap to four. Robinson hit 1-2 free throws, also with 26 seconds left, to make the score 71-66. The Bulldogs got a lucky bounce on a missed rebound that Williams gathered up outside the three-point line and nailed to cut the lead to 71-69 with 12 seconds left.
Harrington was then fouled with nine seconds left and made two free throws to take the lead to four. Wright then cut it to one on a wild, long-range three-pointer than banked in with seven seconds to play, cutting the lead to 73-72.
Daniels was fouled with 3.5 seconds left and made 1-2 free throws, but he intercepted a UGA pass at midcourt and threw up an underhand shot at the buzzer than went through the basket from near midcourt. Although the officials ruled the shot was after the horn sounded, the Tigers still had their victory by a 75-72 count.
That ended a six-game losing streak for Auburn and improved its record to 10-11 overall and 2-8 in the SEC. Georgia fell to 7-4 in the league an 18-6 overall.
"We got off to a great start, so our young guys were not intimidated," Ellis said. "In the second half, we got off to a slow start and the veterans came in and took over." The veteran coach said he started four freshmen when he was at South Alabama, but with juco transfer Bird in the lineup, he never remembered starting five first-year players.
When asked how Georgia rebounded from a slow start, Georgia's Harrick said, "I thought we executed our offense and knocked down some shots. Then we got up by six. Boy, there were some real strange shots in the game."
Bird said a physical week of practice prepared the Tigers for the upset. "It was a very physical game," he said. Tiger players said that officiating crew chief Tim Higgins told them in pre-game that they were going to allow some physical play to get by without fouls being called.
Bird said the Tigers are now trying to get ready to make a run in the SEC Tournament. "I thought our guys showed a lot of heart."