“Tonight everybody saw I mean a lot to the team,” Gaines said after the Bulldogs scored 22 points below their season average in front of 9,191 fans in Alexander Memorial Coliseum. “I’m pretty much the center piece of everything.”
Gaines didn’t need to say that, having already unintentionally made the point by sitting out the game due to a sprained right ankle. The signs of his absence were everywhere, but nowhere were they more notable than in Mike Mercer’s line score.
Mercer was forced to play point guard in Gaines’ absence and failed to make a field goal for the first time this season. He finished with a season-low nine points, all from the foul line, and had a season-worst seven turnovers.
“He’s a terrific offensive weapon from the standpoint of finishing offensive plays,” Coach Dennis Felton said. “When he’s always the one starting plays, he’s not in the position to finish as many.”
Levi Stukes’ 62.8 percent 3-point shooting for the season fell to 33 percent Friday night, and the Bulldogs had 18 turnovers. Stukes still led the Bulldogs with 21 points, his fourth straight game with more than 20.
Felton said Thursday that he believed Gaines would play, but Yellow Jacket point guard Javaris Crittenton said he knew all along that Gaines was out.
“I wanted to tell (Tech coach Paul Hewitt) I don’t think he’s going to play, but (Hewitt) kept insisting he was,” said Crittenton, who claimed to have a source on Georgia’s basketball team that he would not reveal.
According to Felton and Gaines, that couldn’t be true, since Gaines didn’t decide until just before the game that he wouldn’t play. He dressed out for the game.
“He just wasn’t ready,” Felton said. “He’s still got quite a bit of swelling. It wouldn’t have been a wise decision to play him. We have to keep thinking about the long haul.”
The Bulldogs (8-2) go back on the road against another ACC opponent next, visiting Clemson on Dec. 28. After that, it’s a Dec. 31 game against No. 4 Wisconsin and the Jan. 6 SEC opener against No. 5 Florida.
Gaines said he feels confident he’ll be able to play in all three of those games, and the Bulldogs desperately need him, a fact Mercer was happy to admit.
“When you’re playing point, instead of looking for your own offense, you have to create offense for other players,” he said after falling nine points short of his season average. “I’ve been playing on the wing all season, and it was hard for me to adjust back to the point.”
Georgia looked like it might survive early on. The Bulldogs didn’t miss a shot for the first six minutes, 10 seconds of the game, and they hit 9 of their first 10 shots overall.
Georgia led by 10 early in the first half held a 45-43 advantage at the 16:33 mark of the second half but couldn’t manage a full 40 minutes without Gaines.
The problems weren’t all on the perimeter. Georgia was outrebounded 35-31.
“They only slightly beat us,” Felton said, “and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that they slightly beat us on the glass.”