A loss to Auburn at this time of year, with a berth in the NCAA tournament at the forefront of every conversation and interview, certainly would have scarred the Bulldogs resume.
Instead, led by a resurgent 22 points from Trey Thompkins, Georgia throttled the Tigers 69-51, avoiding the final potential trap for a “bad loss” this season.
“We didn’t want to have that bad of a loss on our resume,” said senior Chris Barnes in reference to Auburn’s RPI ranking of 253. “We felt like it was the last hump to get over.”
The win sets up a rematch between Georgia and Alabama in the quarterfinals Friday. The two teams played six days ago in Tuscaloosa; Alabama won 65-57.
“We didn’t play our A-game against them last time,” said junior Travis Leslie. “We’ve got to do that, not break down in the second half like we do sometimes.”
Some have pegged Friday’s clash as a potential play-in game for the NCAA Tournament. Georgia coach Mark Fox shrugged off that generalization.
“No, we have played the entire season to create a tournament resume in which the committee will evaluate,” Fox said. “And we have tried to do what the committee’s asked us to do: play a schedule that’s arranged in the top 40 in the country, RPI’s in the top 40, win more games than we lose in our league, have a winning record on the road. We tried to do things that the NCAA committee has traditionally asked for.”
While winning it’s way into the tournament dominated the interviews following the game, Thompkins played, perhaps, his best game in over a month.
He shot 8-of-15 from the field, including three 3’s, the most triples he’s hit in a game all season. He grabbed 10 boards to finish off his double-double.
After battling a number of foot-related injuries, Thompkins, whose 22 points were the most he’s scored since the Kentucky win January 8, moved as well on the court Thursday as he has all year, according to Fox.
“He really played well,” Fox said. “It’s the best he’s played in a long time. Whether or not it’s his best game of the year, I don’t know. But he did play very well.”
“I hold myself to a higher standard because my teammates do, my coaches do,” Thompkins said. “My teammates expect a lot out of me, and I expect a lot out of myself.”
The Bulldogs never trailed against Auburn, as six early points from Thompkins helped establish control of the game from the tip.
Georgia built a 34-19 lead, in part behind nine first half points from Leslie before Auburn scored the final four points of the period to close to a 34-23 halftime margin.
That’s as close as the Tigers would sniff for the rest of the afternoon.
“I was proud of how we were able to defend and play from really in front most of the game,” Fox said.
Georgia stretched the margin to 17 by the midpoint of the second half. Cruising to the victory, Fox was able to rest Thompkins down the stretch, lifting his star with 6:16 to play in the game. No Bulldog logged more than 33 minutes.
“Alabama didn’t play today,” Fox said, “so they will probably be a little bit fresher, but this is the time of year where you have just got to overcome that. It shouldn’t be a factor.”
Leslie finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds (eight offensive). Junior guard Gerald Robinson joined in double figures, scoring 11 points and dealing six assists.
Auburn guard Earnest Ross, who scored 30 points in the overtime loss to Georgia in early February, was held to six points on 1-of-10 shooting.
While getting another win was important for Georgia and getting Thompkins back on track was necessity, the NCAA Tournament kept creeping back into the conversation.
“We began talking about the NCAA tournament and resume games and those types of things back in November. This week we haven’t talked it…(Thursday) was a chance to play in the SEC tournament and a day to try and advance. And that’s all we have talked about all week. And I haven’t allowed them to talk about anything else.”