KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For the past several seasons, games like Wednesday night’s in Thompson-Boling Arena have been games that Tennessee has found ways to win at home and Georgia has found ways to lose on the road.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's 24 points led Georgia to a win Wednesday night at Tennessee. (Photo by the Knoxville News Sentinel)
Things change, though.
UT is struggling, Georgia is surging, and both things were on full display in the Bulldogs’ 68-62 victory before an announced crowd of 14,786 that failed to fill Thompson-Boling with the buzz it tends to have this time of year.
The Vols (11-10, 3-6 SEC) fought back in several spurts after another sluggish start, but the Bulldogs (11-11, 5-4) consistently contained the damage, stood up straight and never lost the lead in a building that’s befuddled them for a long time.
"We’re playing freshmen and sophomores, and we started out slow,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “We did that to ourselves, and we played some really good teams like Indiana and UCLA, played Florida twice already, and had a really inexperienced roster, but they're starting to grow up.
“We've been in a lot of close games and lost some of them. ...Those experiences have helped us have a little more poise now.”
Talents like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope help, too.
Caldwell-Pope, the reigning SEC player of the week, continued his assault on the SEC with another big night. He scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the second half, and he did got most of it from long range against one of the nation’s better 3-point defenses.
He wasn’t alone, either. The Dawgs, led by Caldwell-Pope’s 5-of-7 effort, were 11-of-20 behind the arc.
(Photo by the Knoxville News Sentinel)
“Pope made the plays to win the game,” second-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He made big shots and drove to the basket and made plays. That’s what good players do. ... They shot the ball well as a team. They’re playing with a lot of confidence.
“But that’s what happens when you allow a team to get their heads up and get in a rhythm. That’s the result of it.”
Martin and his players weren’t pleased with themselves, but all of them — at least the ones made available for postgame interviews — were quick to credit the Caldwell-Pope and the Dawgs for answering rally after rally after rally on the road.
“It was just one of them things, man,” said senior guard Skylar McBee, who scored nine points for UT on 2-of-4 shooting from long range. “Every time we got it close, that (Caldwell-Pope) guy hit a dagger. Every time. Give credit where it’s due, but we’ve got to do a better job on the defensive end. Coach Martin’s right about that. ...But, again, you’ve got to give credit where it’s due. He hit some tough shots — some that he might not even normally hit. It was just one of them things, man.
“But we’ve got to do a better job on the other team’s best player and make somebody else beat us.”
Caldwell-Pope got some help, though. Much of it came from freshman guard Kenny Gaines, who scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range.
"We always believed we had a really good 3-point shooting team,” Fox said. “Early in the year, we were probably not taking the right 3-point shots, but we always felt like had a really good 3-point shooting team. Early in the year, we were very impatient in every way, every part of the game, so we didn't complete as many early.
“But it's something where we've finally matured a little bit and settled down.”
Caldwell-Pope’s cool demeanor certainly played a big part Wednesday night.
Moments after the Vols trimmed an early nine-point deficit to 26-22 late in the first half, Caldwell-Pope hit a 3 to make it 29-22 and quiet a crowd that was just starting to get into the game. The Dawgs used that big shot and carried it into a 36-26 lead.
Moments after the Vols trimmed another nine-point deficit to 37-32 early in the second half, Caldwell-Pope hit a 3 to make it 40-32.
Moments after the Vols trimmed another nine-point deficit to 52-46 midway through the second half, Caldwell Pope answered to make it 54-46 and quieted the crowd again.
Moments after the Vols trimmed another nine-point deficit to 54-53 on two Jarnell Stokes free throws with 4:56 left, Caldwell-Pope hit a 3 to make it 57-53. Again, the crowd hushed.
Moments after the Vols trimmed a five-point deficit to 61-58 on two more Stokes free throws with 2:04 left, Caldwell-Pope hit two shots — the second being another tough 3 — to basically put the game out of reach at 66-58 in the final minute.
The crowd didn’t get quiet the last time, though. It groaned.
Fox was hesitant to canonize Caldwell-Pope, but the coach couldn’t complain about his star sophomore.
“He's getting some help, and he's really married to how we play,” Fox said. “He really understands that and he believes and knows where his shots come from. He's really starting to mature as a player.”
Junior guard Jordan McRae, UT’s leading scorer, led the Vols with 17 points but left the floor shaking his head at the Vols’ inability to stop Caldwell-Pope.
“I seen him in AAU and high school a couple of times,” said McRae, who like Caldwell-Pope is from the Atlanta area. “I always knew that he was a really good player, but obviously we didn’t do a very good job on him tonight. He made a lot of plays — too many plays, obviously.”
The Vols got plenty of production from their own star sophomore, but Stokes’ third consecutive double-double — 16 points and 11 rebounds this time, with nearly all of it coming in the second half — wasn’t enough to help UT overcome another sluggish start.
“Stokes is a great player,” Fox said. “We couldn't guard him.”
Fortunately for Fox and his team, though, the Vols couldn’t get out of their own way in the opening minutes. The Vols had just eight points on the board when they collected their eighth turnover, and an early 10-point deficit left them chasing the game the rest of the night.
“You make it tough on yourself when you get 11 turnovers in the first half,” Martin said. “You've got to take care of the basketball. We shot 43 percent in the first half, but you can't turn it over like that. It's tough to bounce back from that.”
McRae again shook his head when asked why the Vols continue to dig themselves into early holes — which have time and time again led to persistent but ultimately pointless second-half rallies.
“I don’t know what’s causing it,” McRae said. “But it’s not good.”
Stokes had no answer for the first-half struggles, either, but he said UT’s offensive performance in the second half should have been enough to push the Vols past the Bulldogs. But it wasn’t, because UT never could contain Caldwell-Pope and Co.
“I think it was mostly on the defensive end,” Stokes said. “I feel like their best player, we just kept letting him score down the stretch. I mean, there’s no way we should have gave up some of the looks that we gave up. On the offensive end down the stretch, I think we did pretty good.
“But we came out sluggish, and that’s never good.”
Georgia will host Texas A&M at 5 p.m. on Saturday — which could be the Dawgs’ fifth consecutive win and sixth in seven games — and the Vols will travel to South Carolina with hopes of ending a two-game skid.
“It’s tough, man. It’s really tough,” McRae said. “But we’ve got to keep going. We’ve got more games. We’ve got time to get this right. We’ve just got to keep working.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247