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Georgia continues rise into SEC contention with win over Vanderbilt

Georgia suddenly looks like an SEC contender after winning again on Tuesday. But the Bulldogs are trying to keep the focus on themselves as a date with Kentucky looms.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Nemanja Djurisic doesn't care to look into the future. Georgia’s lanky 6-foot-8 forward only cares about here and now. He might be part of a Bulldog team that suddenly looks like a spoiler in the SEC, but that doesn’t mean Djurisic and his teammates have next week’s matchup with No. 1 Kentucky circled on their calendars.

“To be honest,” Djurisic said, “I didn’t even realize it’s two games away.”

Why would Georgia worry about a game against the nation’s top-ranked team? Because the Dawgs might actually be dangerous in the SEC. On Tuesday, the Bulldogs topped Vanderbilt 70-62 for the team’s fifth straight win and 11th in its last 13 games. With the victory, Georgia now holds a share of second place in the conference standings at 5-2 in SEC play.

Say what you will about Kentucky, as well as the SEC’s much-maligned basketball reputation, but Georgia thinks it’s the hottest team in the SEC. And the Bulldogs think they can still get better.

​“I don’t think we’re playing anywhere near where we can,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “Some of our turnovers and struggles are my fault. But it’s a good win, and we beat a team that’s going to win its share of ball games.”

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​Georgia didn’t look the part of a conference contender through 20 minutes against Vanderbilt. Neither team could hit a shot for much of the first half, and the Bulldogs held a slim 31-27 lead at the break despite holding the Commodores to 31 percent shooting. Djurisic (11) and Marcus Thornton (7) were the only Georgia players with more than four points at halftime.

The Bulldogs couldn’t take advantage of Vanderbilt’s poor shooting due to their seven turnovers. The ‘Dores, meanwhile, only committed two turnovers in the first period. 

The first-half lead meant nothing to Fox. He knew who the better team was at that juncture. “I thought they outplayed us in the first half,” the coach said. But Georgia looked more alive after the break. Kenny Gaines grabbed a steal and canned a fast-break three-pointer to give Georgia a 41-36 lead with 14:32 to play, and after two big defensive stops, YanteMaten converted a three-point play to push the Dawgs ahead 44-36 less than two minutes later.

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Vanderbilt managed a 12-2 run that cut Georgia’s lead to 57-53 with 2:59 left, but the Bulldogs’ free-throw shooting (they went 23 of 25 on the night) helped seal the win in the waning moments.

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Georgia’s bend-but-not-break character has been a theme of its season. It committed 10 turnovers and lost the rebounding battle in a 69-64 win over Ole Miss on Jan. 20. Against Mississippi State last Saturday, the Bulldogs kept a 72-66 win close thanks to a 15-of-23 performance at the charity stripe. While Georgia has managed to overcome its own struggles for a successful month, its players aren’t blind to the team’s close calls.

“We haven’t been playing great basketball, and we know that,” Djurisic said. “At Mississippi State, we found a way to win. Tonight, we find a way to win, especially in the second half. Lately we have been finding ways. It’s always good to win when you don’t play as well, but we’ve got to get back to being good on defense and offense.”

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​The Bulldogs will want to fix their issues sooner rather than later. Entering Tuesday, Georgia was one of five teams tied for second in the SEC with a 4-2 record. That group included LSU, Texas A&M and Tennessee, programs that have largely surpassed expectations.

During the preseason, most expected only Florida and Arkansas to emerge as potential threats to Kentucky’s dominance. Instead, the Gators have fallen off the map -- indeed, they lost 73-61 to Georgia on Jan. 17 -- en route to a near-.500 record. Meanwhile, a number of other teams have jumbled into an SEC logjam just beneath the Wildcats.

There’s little indication the SEC's parity will subside, either, as the entire top half of the league remains in the mix for NCAA tournament bids. For a league that’s long shouldered a reputation as a sorry basketball conference, the SEC’s top half is suddenly playing like the postseason matters.

​There’s a reason why Georgia, in particular, has continued to fly under the radar. In his tenure in Athens, Fox hasn’t been able to replicate his hugely successful tenure at Nevada, where he compiled a 123-43 record, won four WAC titles and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament twice. Fox has managed just one NCAA tournament appearance (in 2011) and has had three losing seasons in five years with Georgia.

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​Fox staved off a bit of hot-seat talk last year when he led the Bulldogs to a 20-win season, though he missed out on the Big Dance again. Now he might have one of his best teams, thanks largely to its defense. The Dawgs rank 32nd in the country in adjusted defense, per KenPom, and on Tuesday Fox’s club held Vanderbilt to 36 percent shooting. The Bulldogs also swatted seven Commodore shots.

But Fox and his players know they need consistency on both ends as they head into the season’s final stretch. That’s why the focus isn’t on Rupp Arena next Tuesday; it’s on a trip to Columbia to face South Carolina on Saturday. In the SEC, it's one step at a time to change a league’s reputation. But Georgia's focus is on itself.

“I feel like we are going to change it,” Gaines said. “Coach Fox is a good coach. He always leads us in the right direction, so whenever he sees us falter in a certain area, he is sure to pick us up and we get it right.”