The 14th-seeded Bulldogs, who made play after play last week to win the SEC Tournament, were unable to close out an upset of No. 3 seed Xavier in the first round of the NCAA Tournament's West Regional. Georgia led by 11 points in the second half but slowly let that slip away in a 73-61 defeat that ends their season.
"Certainly, this one stings a little bit right now with the proximity to the game, but what we were able to do not only last week but the whole season, which really enabled us to be in position to be here, is something that I'll be proud of forever," senior center Dave Bliss said.
It was the fifth straight game Georgia (17-17) played in which a loss meant the end of the season, and the stress began to show in the second half. The Bulldogs had more turnovers (four) than points (three) from the 14:52 mark to the 5:37 mark of the game, and Xavier outscored them 18-3 in that stretch.
Georgia finally awakened from that slumber but could never recover from it.
The Bulldogs had to mostly stand and watch as their dream run ended. The Musketeers shot 33 free throws to Georgia's five in the game, and they scored 25 of their 47 second half points from line.
"We were up (11) in the second half, and if you can't hold an (11-point) lead in the second half in the NCAA Tournament, you don't deserve to win," freshman guard Zac Swansey said. "We don't have anyone to blame but ourselves. There were some questionable calls, but that happens in every game. It was in our hands."
Not every Bulldog was so forgiving after seeing the Musketeers (28-6) shoot 29 free throws in the second half.
"When things got tough and physical, we did everything we could do to pound it in the paint and get to the free throw line, but it seemed like no matter what we did, we couldn't get there," head coach Dennis Felton said. "The difference in the game certainly ended up being the difference from the free throw line."
Georgia had more field goal attempts (56-47), a better shooting percentage (46.4 percent to 42.6 percent) and more rebounds (31 to 29) than Xavier.
"You feel so cheated," junior guard Corey Butler said. "There are so many words that you can't use to explain it."
Butler declined to say if his cheating comment was directed at the officiating.
After Terrance Woodbury scored to put Georgia up 43-32 with 16:08 left, Xavier scored 10 of its next 12 points from the free throw line. Xavier grabbed its first lead since early in the first half when Dante Jackson hit a 3-pointer with 7:19 left in the game to put his team up 52-49.
"There were some possessions where we didn't take care of the ball," Swansey said. "That took the momentum away from us and led to easy baskets for them. The momentum started to swing and after that it seemed like everything they put up went in."
Woodbury led Georgia with 16 points and seven rebounds. Gaines had 13 points and six assists in his final collegiate game.
The loss leaves the Bulldogs 7-10 all-time in NCAA Tournament games. They were working against history (No. 14 seeds were 15-77 against No. 3s entering this year's tournament), but they looked nothing like an underdog for most of the game.
"If I had called all the other three seeds and asked them if they wanted to trade opponents, I don't think I would have had any takers," said Xavier coach Sean Miller, who attributed Thursday's free throw differential to "style of play."
"Their big guys had to guard (our) forwards," Miller said. "Derrick Brown and Josh Duncan, their ability to attack the basket, that came to our advantage (in foul calls). We didn't do to Georgia anything different than we've done to a lot of teams this season. Being able to attack the basket and get to the free throw line is something all teams try to do."
Georgia was playing its fifth game in eight days, but every Bulldogs asked said fatigue was not a factor.
"The only thing I would say is disappointing is us having the lead and letting it slip away so easily," Gaines said, "but, from an overall standpoint, I'm proud of where the program came from in my four years."