ATHENS, Ga. - Lately, Jim Harrick has exhorted his team to leave no doubt that it deserves an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Georgia's second-year basketball coach struggled to find even a semblance of doubt after Wednesday's 94-73 torching of Mississippi State at Stegeman Coliseum.
If only for a night, the Bulldogs' performance was beyond doubt or dispute. They shot 70.2 percent from the field, their best display since a 76.2-percent clip in a win over Tennessee-Chattanooga in 1980, in an emphatic recovery from last week's disappointing home loss to South Carolina.
"That was a very impressive win by our team," Harrick said. "I thought we played very well defensively and offensively and executed very well. ... The guys stepped up and focused and played like I know they can play."
Georgia finally gave its home fans something to cheer about, and the Bulldogs might soon be cheering an NCAA Tournament bid as a result.
A home loss to Mississippi State might have kicked Georgia off the tournament bubble. But after losing three of their previous four at Stegeman Coliseum, the Bulldogs held serve at home by serving up a their most lopsided victory since a 102-69 pasting of Coastal Carolina on Nov. 28.
"It was a statement game," said Georgia guard D.A. Layne, who scored 19 points on 9-of-14 shooting. "Our back was against the wall. We not only had to come out and beat this team, we had to beat them handily. We had to let everybody know that we're a for-real team and we deserve to be playing in March."
Georgia improved its record to 16-12, 9-6 in the SEC, and cemented a third-place finish in the SEC East. The Bulldogs finished last in the East in 1999-2000.
Even if Georgia loses Saturday's regular-season finale at Arkansas and bows out of the SEC Tournament's first round, the NCAA Selection Committee might find the Bulldogs difficult to pass up by virtue of their strength of schedule (No. 1 nationally) and their standing in the all-important Rating Percentage Index (No. 16).
If hot shooting were taken into account, Georgia would be a lock. The Bulldogs hit 22 of their 28 shots from the field (78.6) in a first half that ended with them up 53-35, and they were never threatened seriously past 10-minute mark of the first half.
The closest Mississippi State got after intermission was 16 points as Georgia stretched its lead to as great as 27. Guard Ezra Williams scored a game-high 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting and forward Shon Coleman added 14 as Georgia amassed a season-high 27 assists.
Making 16 of your first 18 shots tends to decide things, and it did for Georgia, which left Mississippi State behind quickly by bolting to a 21-point lead with 4:54 left in the first half.
Layne and Williams scored 22 of Georgia's first 28 points as the Bulldogs broke away to a 30-17 lead. For all intents and purposes, the game was over.
"The guys stepped up and focused and played like I know they can play," Harrick said.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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