Burdened by the Southeastern Conference's worst defense, No. 17 Georgia fell further behind in the East as Ron Slay led Tennessee to a 78-72 victory over the Bulldogs Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Establishing his SEC career scoring high for the second time in less than three weeks - both against the Bulldogs - Slay scored 33 points, burning Georgia with his power inside and, more surprisingly, by making four of five 3-point shots.
Georgia (13-6 overall, 5-3 in the SEC) fell into a tie for third in the East with Tennessee (13-6, 5-3). Georgia shared first place in the East with a 10-6 mark last season, but this year Kentucky and Florida are setting a much stronger pace atop the division.
"This is a must-win situation all the way now,'' said Georgia forward Jonas Hayes. "We've got eight games left, and we'll have to win at least seven of them, I would say, if we're going to stay in the race.''
That would be a daunting challenge even if Georgia did not have to play Tuesday night at No. 6 Kentucky, which remained undefeated in the SEC Saturday with an 80-62 win at Mississippi.
Added Hayes: "We want the SEC championship, but what we really want is to get the national championship.''
If so, Georgia must improve defensively.
On Jan. 22 in Athens, Williams scored 29 points and Jarvis Hayes added 23 as Georgia beat the Vols 81-76 in overtime, despite 29 points from Slay.
On Saturday, Hayes played his best game in two weeks by scoring 19 points with eight rebounds, but Williams made only 3 of 12 shots from the field and was held to nine points - matching his season low. Guard Rashad Wright also struggled, making 1 of 6 shots for three points.
Chris Daniels (14 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists) and Damien Wilkins (11 points) played well for Georgia, which never trailed by more than six points. But when the game was tight in the final minutes and Georgia needed a defensive stop, Slay, Brandon Crump (16 points) or Thaydeus Holden (15 points) usually came through for the Vols. The 16 points from Crump was a personal high for the sophomore in SEC games.
Slay was consistently open at the top of the key as Georgia's 2-3 zone defense was geared to contain the 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior inside.
"The surprise was that he got open for the (two) 3-pointers in the second half, considering that was already hit two in the first half,'' Wilkins said.
Slay leads the SEC with 21.2 points per game, and he has scored 20 or more points in five of Tennessee's last six games, but the senior saves his best for Georgia.
"I pretty much have good games against them,'' Slay said. "I don't know why that is.''
Said Vols coach Buzz Peterson: "The last time we felt like (Georgia) stopped Ron from shooting the 3. We like for Ron to take a look from the top of the key. We feel like he's got a really good shot there.''
Georgia coach Jim Harrick drew a technical foul with 8.2 seconds left. "It was too much Slay and Crump,'' Harrick said. "They just absolutely controlled us. Slay was just fabulous. He made two (3-pointers) from about 28 feet.''
The last of seven ties in the game came with 2:23 left when Daniels scored inside to pull Georgia even at 67-67. A free throw by Slay gave the Vols a one-point lead, and following a missed jumper by Jarvis Hayes, Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson called a timeout and set up a lay-in by Brandon Crump for a 70-67 lead.
Following a missed 3-pointer by Hayes, Slay grabbed the rebound and was quickly fouled. Again the SEC's leading free-throw shooter could make only one of two tries, pushing the lead to four points at 71-67.
Hayes scored on a put-back to cut the lead to 71-69, but that was as close as Georgia would come.