COLUMBIA — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope likes what he sees on the court out of Georgia, especially over the last two weeks.
The Bulldogs have shaken off an 0-3 start to Southeastern Conference play by winning four of their last five in league play. They won their third straight SEC game for just the second time in coach Mark Fox’s four seasons with a 67-56 victory against South Carolina on Saturday.
Caldwell-Pope, the SEC’s second-leading scorer, had 19 points to lead Georgia.
“We are feeling good,” he said. “There’s a lot of confidence going around.”
And why shouldn’t there be?
The last time Georgia won three straight league games, it wound up 9-7 in the SEC and picked for the NCAA tournament. No one’s projecting the Bulldogs (10-11, 4-4) for the Big Dance yet, but that hasn’t dampened the rising spirit among the team.
“We’re just having fun,” Caldwell-Pope said.
The fun truly started in the second half when Georgia opened with a 17-8 run to take control. Freshman Kenny Gaines had 9 of his 11 points in the stretch, where the Bulldogs went from down 30-29 to ahead 46-38.
Gaines said it’s taken a while for the team’s young players like himself to feel totally comfortable as he did against the Gamecocks (12-9, 2-6).
“Sometimes you mess up, but you’ve got to be able to put that behind,” he said.
Michael Carrera led the Gamecocks (12-9, 2-6) with 16 points, but had just one of those the final 20 minutes. South Carolina’s leading scorer, Brenton Williams, was held to 2 points on 1-of-4 shooting.
Caldwell-Pope added seven rebounds for the Bulldogs.
But it was Georgia’s fast start to the second half that turned things around in what had been a tight game, which had been tied six times – the last at 31-all on Gaines’ first basket of the game. He followed up with a driving shot on his team’s next possession that put the Bulldogs ahead for good. Gaines’ third bucket of the half extended the lead to 37-33. John Cannon added two easy layups after Georgia beat South Carolina’s backcourt press and Gaines’ struck with his 3-pointer.
The Gamecocks got within 46-44 on Bruce Ellington’s 3-pointer and three-point play, but Dontae Williams followed with a put back and Vincent Williams a 3-pointer to restore the Georgia’s edge. South Carolina would not get closer than five points the rest of the way.
The Bulldogs made 25 of 43 field goals to finish with a SEC season high 58.1 percent shooting.
“We knew we would have to play very well offensively to give ourselves a chance to win. We were pretty poised,” said Fox, Georgia’s coach
Georgia tries to win its fourth straight against SEC opponents – something it hasn’t accomplished since its stunning run to a league-tournament championship in 2008 – on Wednesday night at Tennessee.
“We’ve got two road wins and we’re just looking forward to the next game,” Gaines said.
Caldwell-Pope got the Bulldogs started off on the right foot, making four of his first five shots as Georgia opened up a 20-16 lead. But Carrera, the dynamic Gamecocks freshman, answered back with an inside jumper and a 3-pointer to retake the lead.
Carrera strode forward and held the pose to the cheers of the crowd after sinking his long-range basket.
Caldwell-Pope, though, wasn’t done. He had two more baskets and a pair of foul shots as the Bulldogs moved back in front 29-25. Carrera again ignited South Carolina, putting back Damien Leonard’s missed 3-pointer in heavy traffic for a basket and adding two foul shots after driving the lane with the shot clock winding down and getting fouled.
The Gamecocks took the lead right before halftime, 30-29, on Mindaugas Kacinas’ three-point play. The Gamecocks could not match Georgia’s play in the second half and South Carolina coach Frank Martin took the blame. “I’ve done a bad job this week and that’s got to change,” said Martin, the Gamecocks’ first-year coach.
Caldwell-Pope finished the half with 16 points while Carrera had 15.
Georgia freshman Charles Mann, who had 5 points in the opening period, went to the locker room just before halftime after falling hard on his shoulder. Mann returned to the floor for second-half warmups, his right shoulder in a protective wrap. He re-entered the game early in the period. Mann finished with 11 points in 24 minutes.
Ellington had 14 points for South Carolina, who was held to seven points this past Wednesday night in a 75-36 loss at No. 4 Florida.
GEORGIA (10-11): D. Williams 2-3 0-0 4, Florveus 1-2 0-1 2, Caldwell-Pope 7-11 2-3 19, V. Williams 1-2 2-2 5, Brantley 1-2 0-0 3, Mann 3-4 5-6 11, Dixon 0-1 0-0 0, Gaines 4-8 2-2 11, Morris 0-0 0-2 0, Cannon 4-6 0-0 8, Djurisic 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 25-43 11-16 67.
SOUTH CAROLINA (12-9): Chatkevicius 0-1 0-0 0, Carrera 5-13 5-6 16, Jackson 1-3 0-0 2, Smith 1-4 0-0 3, Ellington 5-12 1-1 14, Williams 1-4 0-0 2, Richardson 5-10 0-0 12, Kacinas 1-2 3-4 5, Leonard 0-2 0-0 0, Slawson 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 19-53 11-13 56.
Halftime–South Carolina 30-29. 3-Point Goals–Georgia 6-13 (Caldwell-Pope 3-6, Brantley 1-2, Gaines 1-2, V. Williams 1-2, Mann 0-1), South Carolina 7-20 (Ellington 3-6, Richardson 2-6, Carrera 1-1, Smith 1-3, Leonard 0-1, Slawson 0-1, Williams 0-2). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–Georgia 30 (Caldwell-Pope 7), South Carolina 27 (Carrera 7). Assists–Georgia 14 (Mann 6), South Carolina 9 (Ellington, Jackson, Smith 2). Total Fouls–Georgia 15, South Carolina 19. A–11,327.