Tennessee Toppled

KNOXVILLE – At halftime, Mark Fox didn't need to remind his players of the perils of holding a lead.

It was more the opposite, given recent events.

So Fox took the larger view. The head coach related later what his message was to his Georgia men's basketball team:

"You're at the doorstep again," Fox said. "You've put yourself back on the doorstep, and sometimes you've gotta kick it down. So just keep kicking."

One half later, the Bulldogs may have just kicked themselves to the brink of an NCAA tournament berth.

Georgia knocked off Tennessee on Saturday, 69-63, achieving the Bulldogs' first win here in 10 years. More importantly, Georgia got the breakthrough win it needed, after a series of disappointing losses.

By itself, the victory doesn't stamp a ticket to the NCAA tournament for Georgia (18-8 overall, 7-5 in the SEC). But it went a long way towards it.

If the Bulldogs win their two remaining home games – against LSU and South Carolina, two of the league's worst teams – then that may be good enough. The two other remaining regular-season games, at Florida and Alabama, would probably be icing.

Not only that, but the Bulldogs – who were 0-11 on the road last year – are now 7-2 in true road games.

"Georgia started the game like they were playing for their NCAA tournament lives," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "We played like we were already in."

The psychological lift of the victory was also huge for Georgia. It had blown two big second-half leads in its previous two games – 24 at South Carolina, with UGA barely holding on to win, then 14 to Vanderbilt, which turned out to be a loss.

Georgia also blew a big lead on Saturday, by 15 in the first half. But this time the opponent came back early enough that the Bulldogs were able to recover.

"This is a big win for us," said Georgia forward Jeremy Price, who had a team-high 20 points. "The last couple games we seemed to play really well in the first half and the second half it seemed to go the opposite. But to come here and win a tough game on the road in a really rough atmosphere, it's a really big win for us."

Tennessee (16-11, 6-6) came back to lead by as many as three, midway through the second half. The performance of Scotty Hopson, on his way to a 32-point game, had Thompson-Boling Arena roaring.

But Georgia kept its composure, and with five minutes left began to pull away again.

Price's jumper made it a four-point game with 4:16 left. Then Travis Leslie's three-point play made it 59-52 with 3:37 left.

The Volunteers scored the next four points, and then the teams exchanged free throws. That set up what have been the game's key basket, by Georgia's Gerald Robinson.

The junior guard, who was having a quiet night to that point, dribbled down the lane and made a layup with 1:51 left.

"I felt like that was a bucket we had to get," Robinson said.

A minute later, Dustin Ware made the game's most important free throws – but only after first missing a couple with 47 seconds left, Georgia leading by just four.

After a dunk by Hopson made it a two-point came, Ware shook off the previous misses, and some trash-talk from Tennessee, and sunk two free throws. Then after another Tennessee basket, he sunk two more.

"I just stepped to the line with confidence," Ware said. "A lot of Tennessee players were saying things, talking and trying to get in my head. But my teammates they just kept faith and kept telling me I was gonna hit it."

When Hopson missed a 3, Georgia stripped the rebound, and Price finished things off with an open-court dunk.

Fox said he looked at his team's NCAA resume' on the plane to Knoxville on Friday. After beating Tennessee, he now sees his team with three wins against top 50 RPI teams.

"There's a lot of schools who haven't played as good a schedule as we have, nor made an attempt to play out of conference on the road, nor out of conference against a good team," he said. "If the selection committee still values your body of work and all that, I thought we were in pretty good shape anyway. But this helps alleviate some criticism that we may or may not have been getting.

"I don't know what the committee has been saying, but I think this helps our cause."

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