SEC Day One: Georgia, LSU Advance

ATLANTA, GA — The three-point shot may be college basketball’s great equalizer but there was nothing equal about Georgia’s 80-65 win over Auburn Thursday night in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament at the Georgia Dome. Georgia found the range in a first half when Auburn could neither hit a three-pointer or defend Georgia’s shooters.

The Bulldogs (18-12) knocked down seven three-pointers in 14 attempts in the first half as they raced out to a 41-31 lead and they never looked back. Georgia had no problems finding open three-point shooters but at the other end of the floor, the Bulldogs had few problems getting into the face of the Auburn shooters with their match-up zone. Georgia had eight first half steals and 13 points off turnovers.

With the win, the Bulldogs not only advanced to the quarter-finals where they will face top-seeded Florida (26-5) at 7:30 Friday night but kept their slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive. If the Bulldogs could spring the upset on Florida’s SEC champions it would go a long way toward a spot in the 65-team bracket. Auburn (17-15) will have to wait until the brackets are announced for the National Invitational Tournament to see if its season will be extended.

In game two, Glen Davis scored 25 points and grabbed 15 rebounds as LSU (17-14) sprung the upset of the day, taking care of third-seeded Tennessee (22-10), 76-67, in overtime. LSU will face Ole Miss, a number two seed, at 9:45 Friday evening.

Levi Stukes was the thorn in Auburn’s side Thursday night. He hit four first half three-pointers and had 14 of his 22 points at the break. Stukes was part of a four-pronged guard attack that Auburn couldn’t counter. The Bulldogs had five players in double figures and four of them were guards. Terrance Woodberry came off the bench to score 13 points (2-3 on three-pointers in the first half) while Sundiata Gaines had 11 points and nine assists and Billy Humphrey added 11points.

Georgia wasn’t restricted to the perimeter. Takais Brown established himself in the low blocks early in the game and finished the game strong with 13 of his 19 points and eight of his 13 rebounds coming in the second half.

Georgia cooled off a bit from the three-point stripe in the second half (3-10) but while the Bulldogs had problems finding the range, they maintained their defensive focus. They stayed in the zone and the plan worked well. Auburn couldn’t hit from the outside (4-16 from the three-point stripe in the second half) and the zone prevented the Tigers from using their quickness to put the ball on the floor and get to the rack.

“The biggest reason we played so much zone is because Auburn creates a match-up challenge for us,” said Georgia Coach Dennis Felton. “They’re very quick and explosive at all their positions.”

Georgia had success with a 1-3-1 match-up zone when the Bulldogs beat Auburn in Athens so Felton used it again Thursday night.

“We played more 1-3-1 ion this game than we did in Athens and it was very good to us,” said Felton. “We got a lot of turnovers out of that so we ended up staying with it a lot because we felt we had a better chance to defend them out of the zone.”

Georgia put the game away with a 10-0 run in the first half that was keyed by back to back three-pointers by Stukes that staked the Bulldogs to a 27-19 lead. Although Auburn would close the gap to 35-31 on a DeWayne Reed three-pointer with 1:42 remaining in the half, the Tigers could never get any closer. Georgia finished the half on a 6-0 run and the Bulldogs carried that momentum into the second half.

Georgia opened the second half on a run and Auburn never recovered. The Tigers kept shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers (12 in the first half, nine in the second) and taking too many contested three-pointers.

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One of the most shocking stories in the SEC this year was LSU’s fall. A Final Four team last year, the Tigers finished last in the SEC West (5-11) and barely finished above .500 with a 16-14 record. The Tigers that showed up Thursday night neither looked or played like a .500 team, however. LSU forced Tennessee into a half-court game and took advantage of its size advantage to pull off the upset of the day in overtime.

Tennessee held a five-point lead (57-52) with 4:36 remaining on a deep three from the corner from Chris Lofton, but LSU battled back behind Davis to take a 64-61 lead on a Garrett Temple floater in the lane with 21.3 seconds left. Tennessee got one point back on a free throw by Ramar Smith with 17.7 seconds left, stole the inbounds pass and then tied it at 64 with 12.2 seconds left on a tip-in by Lofton.

LSU had a chance to win it in regulation but Temple was called for a charging foul with 7.3 seconds left, giving the Vols one last shot. JaJuan Smith’s long three-pointer at the buzzer wasn’t even close, sending the game into overtime.

Once in overtime, Davis wouldn’t be denied. He was the presence the Tigers needed on the defensive end, blocking a shot and picking off a steal. On the offensive end, he had five points, including three on a stickback and a free throw with 1:55 left that increased LSU’s lead to 71-67. From there, the Tigers just took care of business with tough defense that held the Vols scoreless in the final two minutes as they pulled away to the final nine-point margin.

LSU got Tennessee playing at a pace more to its liking than the frenetic up and down that Coach Bruce Pearl wanted. Forced into a more conventional half-court game, the Vols were only 3-13 from the three-point line and 10-28 from the floor in the first half. Tennessee held a 27-25 lead at the half thanks mostly to nine points off LSU’s 10 turnovers.

Chris Lofton, the SEC’s leading scorer, hit a contested three-pointer from NBA distance to start the game and added two quick layups, all in the first three minutes, but he was pretty much silenced after that. Lofton knocked down one more three-pointer with 8:30 remaining in the half but that was the last time he was heard from.

LSU wanted to post up Glen Davis, but “Big Baby” found himself surrounded every time he touched the ball. The 6-9, 285-pounder managed only three points in the first half, but more telling was the fact he only took three shots. Tennessee paid so much attention to Davis, however, that 6-10 Magnum Rolle carried the Tigers with 10 points, hitting five of his six shots.

The Tigers led by five at one point in the first half (13-8) with 8:47 left and they led by three (22-19) when Davis got three points the old fashioned way with 4:50 remaining but Tennessee finished strong and grabbed the halftime lead when Duke Crews hit a pair of free throws with 1:20 left.

Davis went 13-17 from the foul line as he led all scorers with 25 points. The Tigers got 15 points from Terry Martin, 12 from Darnell Lazare and 10 from Rolle. Lofton led Tennessee with 21 points while Ramar Smith added 18.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.