Whatever is ailing your team, the Dogs will fix it. The No. 17 Gators entered the O’Connell Center on a three-game losing streak. They left with a 77-66 win, thanks mostly to a career-high 37 points and 22 free throw attempts from sophomore forward Joakim Noah.
Twice before this season, the Bulldogs (15-13, 5-10 SEC) faced Kentucky when the Wildcats were on a three-game losing streak, and Kentucky ended its streak both times.
“We always seem to catch teams at bad times,” Georgia guard Mike Mercer said, “but tonight we fought hard and gave it all we had.”
A crowd of 11,578 fans, including Noah’s father, former tennis star Yannik Noah, watched Joakim Noah score more points than any Gator since Vernon Delancy had 38 in 1981.
Only Arkansas’ Jonathon Modica has had as many points in an SEC game this year, and it was the most points the Bulldogs have given up this season. Noah, who also had a career-high 11 rebounds, scored the third-most points by a Gator in the history of the O’Connell Center.
“He’s a terrific player, there’s no doubt about that,” Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. “He was obviously feeling very good and very aggressive tonight.”
Noah, who hit 19 of his free throw attempts, shot six more times from the line than the Bulldogs.
“I don’t think I’ve been to the free throw line 22 times this season,” Mercer said.
“We were just trying to stand straight up, and he kept getting to the free throw line regardless,” Georgia center Dave Bliss said. “I’m not going to (talk about the officiating), but I think you know how I feel.”
The Gators shot twice as many free throws than Georgia and were 27-of-32 from the stripe. For the most part, Felton had no problem with the officiating, he said.
“The only thing that I thought strange is we had a lot of times when they just pounded us under the rim when he we had good position,” he said. “I don’t know how you guard that.”
Despite all that, the Gators (23-6, 9-6) couldn’t put Georgia away until the end because the Bulldogs got off 66 shot attempts. Georgia was down by as many as 13 in the second half but pulled within four twice in the final 3:15.
“I’m telling you, I was very, very proud of how hard they played tonight,” Felton said. “They competed the whole time, and they had a very good level of composure through adversity. We just kept coming back. It was just a one- or two-play game.”
The Bulldogs couldn’t pull off the upset because they shot just 39 percent from the floor, missing 40 of their 66 attempts. They were 4-of-21 from behind the 3-point line, and leading scorer Levi Stukes had just three points on 1-of-6 shooting.
Mercer led Georgia with 16 points, his best output of the SEC season.
“The difference was they made some tough, hard-earned shots, and we struggled to finish on some easy opportunities,” Felton said. “Some of our opportunities couldn’t have gotten any easier.”
Georgia remains in a tie with South Carolina for fifth place in the Eastern Division. The Bulldogs, who play Arkansas on Sunday in their regular season finale, must maintain that tie to keep from finishing dead last in their division. South Carolina plays at Auburn on Saturday to finish its regular season.