Georgia, unranked for 45 consecutive months, made its first national noise since the embarrassing end of the Jim Harrick era by beating No. 16 Gonzaga 96-83 in front of 6,812 ecstatic fans at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
“We had on the bottom of our scouting report that we wanted to make our name known nationally,” said sophomore guard Mike Mercer, who had 19 points and four assists. “I think it’s definitely a turning point.”
Gonzaga (9-3) entered the game as the only team in the country to beat No. 3 North Carolina this season and left having given up its most points in a calendar year and committed a season-worst 21 turnovers.
“They’re an NCAA Tournament team,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Georgia. “We knew that coming in. We tried to prepare our guys for that, but obviously we didn’t do a good enough job. This is a really good basketball team. They don’t seem to have a weakness right now.”
The Bulldogs (7-1), who return to the court Tuesday in Athens against Jacksonville, beat their first ranked opponent since a 2004 win over Kentucky.
“This is the biggest win of my whole career,” said senior guard Levi Stukes. “Kentucky is one of the ones I’ll always remember, but just going through the ups and downs with this team, this probably was the biggest win because we’re playing against a team that is nationally known and everybody thought we didn’t have a chance. We showed the nation on national TV that Georgia’s a team that you need to watch out for.”
It’s the three guards that opponents will be paying the most attention to. Stukes led the way with a season-high 25 points, including 19 in the first half. Mercer added 19 points and energized the Bulldogs with, among other gravity-challenging feats, a reverse slam dunk off an alley-oop from Billy Humphrey.
“Mike did the things we know he can do from the standpoint of his athleticism wreaking havoc on a team’s defense,” Coach Dennis Felton said.
And then, after Stukes and Mercer had powered the Bulldogs to a 16-point lead with 16:52 left in the game, gritty point guard Sundiata Gaines rebuffed a Gonzaga rally with the force of his will.
Gonzaga outscored the Bulldogs 10-2 after Mercer put Georgia ahead 61-45 with 16:52 remaining, but once the Bulldogs’ lead shrunk below 10, Gaines took over. He scored 10 points by himself from the 13:52 mark to 11:20 to keep the suddenly hot-shooting ‘Zags at bay.
Gonzaga scored on eight of 10 possessions and trailed by seven after a basket by star guard Derek Raivio with 10:28 left but didn’t score again for almost five minutes.
Raivio led his team with 19 points, finishing with fewer than 20 for the first time in nine games.
Gaines finished just two points shy of his career high with 21 and also had eight rebounds, a season-high six steals and five assists.
“That’s a powerful game, but it goes deeper than the numbers,” Felton said. “He made a couple huge plays to hold them off when they were making their runs back at us.”
The Bulldogs, who shot 54 percent from the floor, scored 30 points off Gonzaga turnovers and had 22 second-chance points to the ‘Zags’ four.
“We wanted to show the nation that we could defend and play with anybody,” Gaines said. “We’ve got a good team. We’re just underrated right now. We’ve still got to prove ourselves.”
The first half was a track meet that saw the lead change hands six times and neither team lead by more than nine. The Bulldogs outscored the ‘Zags 20-12 in the final seven minutes of the half and led 50-45 at the break. Georgia, though, held Gonzaga scoreless for the first 3:21 of the second half.
The Bulldogs came into the game wanting to “wake folks up about what’s going on with Georgia basketball,” Felton said.