CHICAGO — Georgia's NCAA tournament drought is over.
Give credit to Jarvis Hayes.
Hayes scored 20 of his career-high 31 points in the second half, powering Georgia past Murray State 85-68 late Friday night.
Powering Georgia to its first NCAA tournament win since 1996, when it advanced to the Sweet 16, third-seeded Georgia bucked the day's trend toward upsets as Hayes dominated the 14th-seeded Racers in the second half.
"This was my first NCAA game and I had a lot of enthusiasm,'' Hayes said. Hayes' brother, Jonas, scored 14 points with 14 rebounds and point guard Rashad Wright added 16 points with 10 assists.
Favorites fell to Missouri Valley Conference teams in two of the first three games in Chicago's United Center Friday. Florida, a No. 5 seed, fell in double overtime to No. 12 seed Creighton. Texas Tech, a No. 6 seed, fell to No. 11 Southern Illinois.
Georgia will play Southern Illinois (27-7) Sunday at approximately 4:45 p.m. ET.
After trailing by 14 points early in the first half, Georgia regained its form and slowly pulled away in the second half.
"We kept our poise; that's what I really like,'' said Georgia coach Jim Harrick. "We didn't panic and put up a lot of bad shots.''
A 3-pointer by Wright gave the Bulldogs (22-9) their first lead in double figures at 71-61 with 5:55 left to play.
Murray State stayed within range. A 3-pointer by Cuthbert Victor with 3:40 left pulled the Racers to within five points at 73-68, but Hayes quickly answered for Georgia. A three-point play by Chris Daniels pushed the lead back to 10 points at 78-68.
Daniels finished with 11 points, all in the second half. Georgia outscored the Racers 43-29 in the final 20 minutes. Murray State (19-13), coached by former Georgia and Auburn assistant Tevester Anderson, looked dangerous early when Justine Burdine and others
were sinking 3-pointers at will. But when the outside shots wouldn't fall, the Racers had too little else on offense — especially when Hayes found his range in the second half.
Georgia placed five scorers in double figures, but the night belonged to Jarvis Hayes. His previous career high was 30 points at Kentucky.
"We had lost two straight, so this is a big win to get our feet back under us,'' Hayes said.
Georgia's Steve Thomas returned from a high fever that forced him to miss Thursday's practice, but he was ineffective, finishing with one point and two rebounds.
One year ago in its first-round loss to Missouri, Georgia fell behind 15-0 before coming back to lead at halftime.
On Friday night, Georgia faced similarly large early deficits, falling behind 16-4 and 25-11 as Murray State nailed seven 3-pointers in the first seven minutes. Burdine was the leader with four of the seven 3-pointers, some from beyond NBA range. Burdine finished with 21 points, but he scored only seven points in the second half.
"On defense, when we put Rashad Wright on Burdine, his defense on Burdine was probably the single biggest difference in the game,'' Harrick said.
Georgia again fought back for a 42-39 halftime lead, preferring to try to pass the ball inside instead of trying to match the Racers' outside shooting. Jarvis Hayes scored 11 points in the half, including a three-point play with 6:24 left in the half gave Georgia its first lead. Jonas Hayes added 10 points and eight rebounds and started the second half for Daniels, who had three fouls.
With Daniels limited by fouls and Thomas not at full strength, Murray State pulled down 17 offensive rebounds in the half, matching Georgia's rebound total.
With Thomas again struggling early in the second half, missing a lay-up that led to a Burdine 3-pointer that pulled the Racers even at 44-44, Daniels came off the bench with 16:43 left to play. Daniels was assigned to Victor, who had 16 points and was the Racers' only inside threat. Victor led the Racers with 23 points.
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com