Branden Dawson scored all 14 of his points in the second half as Michigan State turned back two serious challenges by Georgia and advanced into the NCAA Tournament third round with a 70-63 victory here Friday afternoon.
The Bulldogs (21-12) ended their 2015 season with a valiant effort, twice nearly overcoming double-digit deficits in the final period. The final time came after the cause appeared lost to many in attendance. Alas, they were undone by offensive errors in the first half and an inability to keep State from making a number of clutch plays late.
“I’m really proud of our team for keeping the fight until the end,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox. “We turned the ball over too much early, and I was never very comfortable with how we were defending in this game. But Michigan State is a very good basketball team and we wish them well. They certainly earned the win.”
Georgia gained the early advantage in this game, twice opening 6-point leads in the first six minutes. A pair of foul shots by Marcus Thornton put the Bulldogs in front 11-5 with 14:23 left in the first half.
State, however, asserted itself offensively and there seemed little that Georgia could do in response. After a Charles Mann 3-pointer gave Georgia a 14-10 advantage, the Spartans took control. They capitalized on three Georgia turnovers to reel off the next 10 points. A foul shot by Lourawls Nairn, Jr., capped the run and gave MSU a 20-14 margin with 7:57 left.
Michigan State put itself in firm command of the game by closing the first half on a 7-0 run. Travis Trice scored on a dunk with 1:28 left and the Spartans followed a Nemi Djurisic miss with a Trice 3-pointer to put his team ahead 35-22 at intermission.
“Throughout the game, we just couldn’t stabilize our defense and tempo,” said Djurisic, who matched his career high with 12 rebounds in his final collegiate game. “We gave up a lot of easy baskets in transition, which hurt us and put us behind. It’s very hard to play against a good team when you’re playing from behind for a long time.”
Still, the Bulldogs fought their way back into contention with a solid start to the final period. A driving layup by Mann with 14:07 left capped Georgia’s 10-0 run and cut the margin to a single basket at 39-37. The Bulldogs had one possession to tie or lead, but Mann lost possession, and they were unable to get closer.
The State lead eventually reached 13 points again at 58-45 on Bryn Forbes 4-point play with 7:16 left. The margin stayed close to that until the final minutes, when Georgia staged a most improbable rally. Fueled by reserve Cameron Forte, the Bulldogs scored nine unanswered points in just over a minute’s time. When Kenny Gaines converted a 3-point play with just 21 seconds left, Georgia had gotten back within 66-63.
MSU’s Denzel Valentine, however, sealed the win by converting four free throws over the closing seconds, thwarting yet another Bulldog rally.
“We competed today, but we just had to play uphill, which is hard to do,” Fox said.
* Georgia ends the season with a 21-12 overall record, its second consecutive 20-victory season. It marks just the second time in program history Georgia has posted back-to-back seasons of 20 wins or more.
* Georgia now has a 7-12 all-time record in NCAA Tournament games. Bulldog teams have yet to win in Charlotte, N.C., after their third try.
* Marcus Thornton recorded the 10th double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in his final collegiate game.
* Fellow senior Nemi Djurisic matched his career rebounding high with 12 today.
* Djurisic finished his career with 1123 points, good for a tie with Jerry Epling (1968-70) in 28th place on the all-time list.
* Michigan State’s 19 fast-break points were a season high by a UGA opponent and just the fourth time all season an opponent reached double figures in fast-break points.