CHICAGO — Though Jarvis Hayes earned the headlines with his career-high 31 points in Georgia's first-round win over Murray State late Friday night, Rashad Wright's all-around game merited co-star billing.
Wright, who began to emerge as a scorer late in the season, scored 16 points with 10 assists and only two turnovers while adding three steals in his crucial defensive effort against Murray State's explosive Justine Burdine.
"He's a great leader for us,'' said Ezra Williams of Wright, a sophomore. "He's playing like a fifth-year senior.''
Wright made two 3-pointers on four attempts, but it wasn't until late in the season that he earned the green light from Coach Jim Harrick on 3-pointers.
"The first half of this year, I didn't have him shooting,'' Harrick said.
"In the second half of the league ... it seems to me like each week he gets better and better and better.''
Other coaches are noticing.
"He's solid; he just takes care of business,'' said Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber Saturday as his team prepared for today's second-round game with Georgia.
Added Weber: "He's the epitome of a point guard you want in your program.''
Wright, who scored a career-high 17 points in Georgia's Southeastern Conference tournament loss to LSU, has reached double figures in five of his last seven games. With his 16 points Friday night, he finally passed forward Steve Thomas to become the team's fourth-leading scorer with 8.8 points per game.
Still, Wright plays in the shadows that so often shrouds point guards.
"I don't get the credit I deserve, but it's something I look at as a challenge,'' Wright said Saturday.
Special practice for Thomas: Saturday's practice sessions were closed to the media, but Harrick promised he would have extra work for Thomas after the sophomore all but disappeared in Friday night's win.
Returning from flu-like symptoms that kept him out of practice Thursday, Thomas managed only one point and two rebounds and played only 16 minutes.
Luckily for Georgia, top backup Jonas Hayes stepped up with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Harrick said he needs Thomas to bounce back against Southern Illinois today.
"I want to get him a real good workout so he can break a sweat and run up and down the floor a little bit,'' Harrick said.
Harrick said Thomas against Southern Illinois center Rolan Roberts would be a key matchup.
Dawg fight: Because a Saluki is a dog, Southern Illinois fans wave "Dawg bones'' and talk about their Dawgs, just as do Georgia fans.
SIU in the NCAA: Southern Illinois is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1995, and its win over Texas Tech Friday was its first since 1977. Overall, the alma mater of Walt Frazier and former Atlanta Hawks guard Mike Glenn are 2-4 in the tournament.
The numbers game: Georgia is 7-8 in the NCAA tournament. Harrick, who won the 1985 national championship at UCLA, is 18-14 in the tournament. ... The 45 combined points by brothers Jarvis and Jonas Hayes represented 53 percent of Georgia's offense Friday night. ... Jarvis Hayes set school NCAA records for field goals made (14) and attempted (22), while Wright's 10 assists also set a school record for the tournament. ... This will be the first time Georgia has played Southern Illinois.
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com