COLUMBIA, S.C. – So this is what winning basketball sounds like.
Kenatvious Caldwell-Pope scored 16 of his game-high 19 points in the first half Saturday, but he got some help down the stretch as Georgia won at South Carolina. (Photo by Ryan Bethea/The Big Spur)
Strands of an impromptu musical showcase filtered from a happy visiting locker room into a hallway in South Carolina’s Colonial Life Center on Saturday afternoon.
“We’re having a lot of fun,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “It’s always fun to win. It’s no fun losing.”
It’s certainly more joyous to be a part of Georgia’s basketball team these days. A squad once basically left for dead in a seemingly lost season is suddenly coming to life quickly in SEC play.
Saturday’s 67-56 victory at South Carolina made four in the last five games for Georgia, including three in a row. Two of those three have come on the road. Bookend weekend wins at Texas A&M and then at South Carolina allowed the Bulldogs to indeed loosen up vocal chords they hadn’t on the road all season.
Yes, by request of Georgia coach Mark Fox, his Bulldogs are to sing the fight song after wins on the road, “which has evolved into their own version of the fight song,” Fox said.
So this postgame performance was “Glory, Glory.”
“It started out singing,” Fox said. “I guess it has become rapping. I don’t really know. It’s kind of a private phase. But that’s the way we celebrate on the road. It’s kind of neat.”
Mark Fox: "We still have so many areas to improve in, but I’ve always liked our team and had faith in them."
With this latest win, Georgia (10-11, 4-4 SEC) will be at least tied for sixth place in the SEC at the end of this weekend’s game.
It has been a substantial turnaround for a team that lost earlier this season to Youngstown State, Southern Miss, Iona and then by 11 points at home to Mississippi State in the second conference game.
“I have never not liked our team – all year. Every day I’ve liked this team,” Fox said. “I’ve never, through the slow start and the hole that we are still not out of, I’ve never had a time I did not like our team. We still have a long way to go. We still have so many areas to improve in, but I’ve always liked our team and had faith in them. They’ve always been fully invested in the process, and that’s why they’re finding some success.”
South Carolina (12-9, 2-6) led by one point at halftime but trailed for more than 18 minutes of the second half. Georgia pushed the lead to 46-38 with 11:48 remaining, but the Gamecocks cut the deficit back to two points at one time, four at another and then 61-56 with 1:51 to play and the crowd getting back into the game.
The Bulldogs, however, stayed composed and slammed the door, shooting 60.9 percent in the second half while holding the Gamecocks to a 32 percent clip.
Making the finish more impressive is that leading scorer Caldwell-Pope scored 16 of his game-high 19 in the game’s first 20 minutes. He only made one shot – a 3-pointer – after intermission and other players stepped in to fill the scoring void, most notably freshmen. Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines each finished with 11 points.
“Right now everyone is stepping up,” Caldwell-Pope said. “That’s probably the big difference. No one was stepping up at the beginning of the season. But now as they’re getting more comfortable and we’re playing games, they’re stepping and making big baskets.”
Mann shrugged off an apparent shoulder injury in the first half to continue playing.
Meanwhile, Gaines started the second half, received a career-high 24 minutes and responded by scoring all of his 11 points after halftime. This included an impressive stretch early in the half that was capped by a highlight-reel dunk follow of a Nemanja Djurisic miss.
“In high school I was known for it,” Gaines said with a smile. “Since I’m playing the 2 position here, the 1 and 2 kind of have to get back. But I kind of took a risky chance. Thank God that I actually made it. … That’s definitely my mindset (to try to make an impact). Before I was getting a little bit more limited minutes. I really appreciate that time. It was kind of a learning experience for situations like this. I feel like those moments helped me.”
“I just felt like he’s been coming on,” Fox said of Gaines. “He has the privilege of practicing against Kentavious every day. Most days that’s not a whole lot of fun, but it’s made him a better basketball player, and today he was able to really help our team. Offensively, certainly, he finished a lot of plays. But he’s been improving. I just had a hunch in my gut that it was a good time to let him have a run at it.”
Of Georgia’s four victories in this recent five-game stretch, all have been by at least seven points. None have come down to wire, an indication of the team’s growth in closing out games.
Fox said he received a call from UGA football coach Mark Richt after a win over LSU on Jan. 19. Richt’s message was “It looks like your team is starting to get confident late in games.” After wins in the past week, Richt repeated the same thing.
“I think he’s right,” Fox said. “I think we’re starting to have some confidence that, ‘Listen, OK, we’re in a battle. Teams are going to make plays. We’re going to make some plays.’ And we’re starting to have a little bit of poise there. For another coach to recognize that means a lot to me.”
Richt isn’t the only coach to see it.
“They’re a team playing with tremendous confidence,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said of Georgia. “You can see that. They’ve had some really good wins and they continued to have that.”