Win over State gives Dawgs shot at NCAAs

ATHENS – Nearing the end of a hard-fought season, Georgia needed a workmanlike performance Saturday in Stegeman Coliseum.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Levi Stukes came ready to labor. On a day when most of his teammates struggled with their execution or their concentration or both, Georgia's senior guard made timely plays in every area of the game to lead his team to an 86-73 win over Mississippi State.

Stukes scored a team-high 21 points and stomped out three Mississippi State runs at the Georgia lead. He started early, turning a 12-9 Bulldog lead into 18-9 by hitting two 3-pointers and drawing a charge on three consecutive possessions.

"Before the game started, while we were warming up, while we were in and out of the locker room, it was on Levi's face the whole time," sophomore guard Billy Humphrey said. "He did not crack a smile, crack a smirk, say a joke. I knew he had it in his mind that it was time to work, and that's different. That's the difference between that game and the Tennessee game (an 82-71 loss on Jan. 31 in which Stukes had 12 points). He matured since the Tennessee game in the aspect that in the layup line (against Tennessee), he was goofing around and making little jokes. He wasn't as focused as he should have been, but tonight he had it on his mind that it was time to go to work."

Georgia led 47-33 at halftime, but Mississippi State scored eight straight to begin the second half and trailed just 47-41 with 18:02 left. Enter Stukes, who buried a 3-pointer. When Mississippi State trailed by cut the lead back to seven eight minutes later, Stukes hit another trey and then assisted Takais Brown on the next trip down the court, putting Georgia up 67-55 and ending the threat.

"Like Coach said, this team came in with the same record as us, we were both fighting for bids in the NCAA Tournament," Stukes said. "When he said that, that got me a little more focused on the task at hand. I didn't want to lose on my home court."

He finished with four assists, four rebounds and two steals while shooting 7-of-12 from the floor.

"That's an awfully good day," head coach Dennis Felton said. "The charge was huge. He had some terrific plays and just a terrific day."

Georgia, which played in front of an announced home crowd of 8,572, kept itself within argument's range of the NCAA Tournament by improving to 17-10 overall and 8-6 in the SEC. The Bulldogs won for the fourth time in five games and guaranteed themselves their first non-losing season in the SEC under Felton.

"There is huge significance to that, huge significance," Felton said. "And it's even more significant when I consider that it's the toughest the league has been. Wins are harder to come by than ever before because there are no easy teams. I'm just really proud. I'm excited about our progress, and I'm proud."

Mississippi State, which was led by Reginald Delk's 22 points, had won four straight entering the game and fell to 16-11 and 7-7 in the league. Mississippi State's two top scorers – Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes – combined for 15 points and seven rebounds.

"Not allowing those two to go off on us to the extent they have the potential to was a big part of us controlling the game," Felton said.

Beyond Stukes, Georgia's statistical numbers were a hodgepodge. It finished with 23 assists, including 16 in the first half alone (more than it has totaled in 16 games this year), but 18 turnovers.

Junior forward Takais Brown had 17 points but seven turnovers, including three straight at one point. Terrence Woodbury was 3-for-3 from the floor and had four rebounds but also four giveaways.

Humphrey finished with 13 points and a career-high tying six assists.

Georgia shot 57.9 percent from the floor, including 12-of-19 (63.2 percent) from behind the 3-point line.

"We knew we needed to match their toughness and make shots, and we didn't," Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said. "They beat us to loose balls, beat us in transition, and we did a very poor job of contesting their shots."

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