ATHENS, Ga. – After an impressive six-game winning streak that included knocking off the likes of Florida, Kentucky and LSU, Tennessee found a somewhat unlikely roadblock on its journey to make the NCAA tournament: Georgia.
The Bulldogs (14-15, 8-8 SEC), who came into Saturday’s matchup having lost four of their last five, handed Tennessee a 78-68 loss in Athens on Saturday afternoon. It’s the first loss the Vols have suffered since falling to the ‘Dawgs 68-62 in Knoxville on Feb. 6. The Bulldogs are the only program to beat Tennessee in the last 30 days.
“It’s nothing about Georgia in particular, they were just the better team today,” said guard Jordan McRae after the loss.
The loss came in spite of a nearly-heroic effort from McRae, who scored 35 points before fouling out at the 1:02 mark of the second half. The junior led the Vols (17-11, 9-7 SEC) in scoring for third time in the last four contests.
His teammates weren’t nearly as successful. Point guard Trae Golden had been one of the catalysts of UT’s run, but he only hit 1-of-10 attempts from the field and finished the game with four points in 30 minutes.
Forward Jarnell Stokes scored eight points on 3-of-7 shooting. Guard Skylar McBee made just 1-of-7 from 3-point range. Reserve center Kenny Hall (10 points) was the only other UT player to score in double figures.
“I just thought we got off to slow start,” said coach Cuonzo Martin. “We didn’t have good spacing offensively – give those guys credit. They sent the double team to Jarnell to take the ball out of his hands and made it tough. Trae Golden just didn’t make shots.”
At times, McRae was one of the few options Tennessee had to score against the Bulldogs. Despite being the focus of the Georgia defense, the 6-5 junior hit 8-of-11 3-point opportunities and found his way to the rim multiple times on his way to a career-high total. His 35 points just topped his 34-point effort against LSU on Feb. 19.
“We lost, so the personal stuff goes out the window,” McRae said. “I think they just did a good job of packing in the lane. Every time we tried to drive, it was like driving into a wall – there was nowhere to go.”
Georgia was paced by guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (25 points, four steals) and Charles Mann (18 points, eight assists, 12-of-14 FTs). The Bulldogs hit 42.9 percent of their shots from the field and drained 50 percent of their attempts behind the arc.
“I thought [Mann] did a good job in the first half,” Martin said. “We switched some ball screens and he did a good job of driving and hitting layups. He made some plays and got to the free-throw line.”
The Vols seemed to be back on track to continue their winning ways after they jumped out to a 7-0 start that drew a loud ovation from the noticeable contingency of travelling Tennessee fans. Georgia answered with a 7-0 run of its own and from there it was back and forth until the ‘Dawgs seized control in the second half.
UT led 41-40 after a McRae 3-pointer at the 11:59 mark of the second half, but Georgia quickly answered with six straight and never looked back from that point. A Caldwell-Pope 3-pointer from deep in the corner at the 4:05 mark gave UGA a comfortable 58-50 edge that it was able to hold onto in the final minutes.
“We beat a good basketball team that is fighting to get into postseason play, and they should get into the postseason,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox. “For five or six weeks, we’ve had a chance to win every game. You are not going to win every game until you learn some valuable lessons.”
Though the Vols will accept Fox’s postseason endorsement, the reality is that Saturday’s loss will likely put the Vols back on the outside looking in to the NCAA tournament field of 68 for the time being.
Most tournament projections had the Vols as one of the last teams in or one of the first out coming into Saturday. They have two regular-season games (at Auburn and vs. Missouri) before SEC tournament play begins on March 13 in Nashville.
There's no magic number Tennessee must reach to make the field, but it seems that winning out and then making some noise in the SEC tournament would be needed to get UT back in.
“We understand the tournament is there, but we have no choice but to take it one game at a time,” said Golden. “We just have to get back in the gym and get ready for [Auburn]. We’d rather be on the bubble than not in the conversation at all.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga