CHICAGO — Armed with a lead of 19 points Sunday, Georgia appeared to be bound for the Sweet 16.
Instead, the Bulldogs disappeared into an offensive funk that left them with only sour thoughts about what might have been in this NCAA tournament.Powered by Jermaine Dearman's 25 points and unrelenting defensive intensity, No. 11 seed Southern Illinois fought back to upset third-seeded Georgia 77-75 before 21,525 at the United Center.
A key moment in the game came when Jonas Hayes was called for an intentional foul with 14.3 seconds left and Southern Illinois leading 73-71. Hayes grabbed center Rolan Roberts, the Salukis' worst free-throw shooter, around the waist after Roberts attempted to avoid being fouled by running to the Southern Illinois bench.
Georgia coach Jim Harrick argued the intentional foul call as inconsistent with calls made against his team this year.
"To call it at that time was unwarranted, in my opinion,'' Harrick said. "... I've seen that happen at least 15 times this year, and I've never seen an intentional foul call.''
Harrick admitted that while the call was crucial, it did not decide the game. Instead, Georgia players admitted they relaxed after taking a 30-11 lead more than 11 minutes into the game, and Harrick second-guessed his own decision to bring in freshman Mike Dean for starting point guard Rashad Wright at that point.
"If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn't have done that,'' Harrick said. "With the kind of lead we had, I thought we could afford that. Obviously, we couldn't.''
Southern Illinois began its comeback with nine straight points and outscored Georgia 24-8 the rest of the half, pulling to within three points at 38-35 at the break.
The Salukis (28-7) kept the momentum in the second half while Georgia (22-10) struggled with turnovers and missed shots — each a credit to the Southern Illinois defense.
Georgia's first field goal of the second half came on a three-point play by Wright at the 16:14 mark. That was the Bulldogs' first basket since the 8:29 mark of the first half, when Jarvis Hayes banked a 3-pointer off the glass for the 30-11 lead.
The Bulldogs' first field goal of the second half came from Wright on an inbounds play. That gave Georgia a 44-43 lead; it would prove to be the Bulldogs' last lead of the game.
With Dearman scoring over Chris Daniels and Steve Thomas inside and the Salukis making six of eight 3-point attempts in the second half, Georgia played from behind the rest of the way.
A key basket for Southern Illinois was a 3-pointer by Kent Williams near the end of the shot clock with 2:02 left to play, giving the Salukis a 73-67 lead.A tip-in by Hayes with 59 seconds left cut the lead to 73-71. Southern Illinois then worked the clock before Dearman missed a shot but followed with one of his eight rebounds.
Harrick and his assistant coaches then frantically motioned for the Bulldogs to foul, and Hayes finally stopped the clock with 14.3 seconds left with his controversial intentional foul on Roberts, allowing Southern Illinois to keep possession after Roberts made one of two free throws.
"I just really slapped him,'' said Hayes, demonstrating by wrapping his arms around a reporter's waist. "It was nothing intentional.''
Jarvis Hayes, who scored a career-high 31 points in Georgia's first-round win over Murray State, added 26 points and 11 rebounds Sunday. Wright scored 16 points. Ezra Williams added 13 but managed only three points in the second half and was 3-for-11 from the field.
While Southern Illinois advances to play Connecticut Friday in Syracuse, Georgia is left to bemoan its lost lead — and lost opportunity.
"We might have become a little too relaxed,'' Wright said. "We should have kept the pressure on. They made a good comeback and you have to give them credit for it.''
A key matchup was Daniels — Georgia's best defensive player — against Dearman. Averaging only 11.8 points per game, Dearman — a 6-foot-8 junior — set his career high while making 10 of 15 shots from the field.
"My teammates were telling me all week ‘Don't worry about jump shots; just try to score down low,' '' Dearman said.
Daniels fouled out with 5:41 left to play. Thomas also fouled out in the final seconds.
Said Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber of Georgia: "We thought they were the aggressor early, but we became the aggressor. ... We got them to get a little tight and freeze.''
Added Harrick: "I fear a lead like that in an NCAA tournament a lot of times. You kind of take a deep breath and relax.''
That blown lead will be the memory that haunts the Bulldogs as they watch the rest of the NCAA tournament on TV.
Said Harrick: "We had enough chances to win.''
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com