ATHENS, Ga. - With one of its stars hurting and its opponent eager for validation, Georgia needed to prove what it had inside.
Steve Thomas stood up to be counted Saturday, scoring 16 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and knocking down four key free throws to lead Georgia to a 85-79 victory over Auburn at Stegeman Coliseum.
"We had an answer in Steve Thomas, who I thought was magnificent," said Georgia coach Jim Harrick. "Without Thomas, we were nowhere to be found."
Thomas, who was ejected for fighting in last year's loss at Auburn, went 4-for-4 from both the floor and the free-throw line in the second half. Post mate Chris Daniels added 12 points, including four big free throws of his own, to help the Bulldogs' inside game break out of a three-game funk.
"I haven't contributed the last three games but I found my rhythm tonight," Thomas said. "You can't take too many days off in the SEC."
For the first time in 165 meetings dating back to 1907, Georgia and Auburn went head-to-head sporting national rankings. The No. 19 Bulldogs had all it could handle from the No. 24 Tigers, who have been the surprise leaders of the SEC West. Georgia (12-4, 4-1) has won of 11 of 12 games while Auburn (15-4, 4-2) dropped its second straight despite shooting 51.7 percent from the floor.
"They're very aggressive and very athletic," said Ezra Williams, who led Georgia with 19 points. "That's probably the most athletic team we'll play all year."
Auburn got a career-high 25 points from Brandon Robinson while Marquis Daniels added 20 and Marco Killingsworth had 16.
With Jarvis Hayes bothered by a sore left hip flexor that he injured in Wednesday night's overtime victory over Tennessee, the Bulldogs needed a balanced effort. Five players scored in double figures and all seven who played made key contributions.
"That's my kind of team," Harrick said. "We're a better basketball team when we have five guys in double figures. That's a much better team than the other day when we got 29 and 23" from Ezra Williams and Hayes.
Hayes said it was comforting to know he could struggle with 3-for-12 shooting and have his teammates pick up the slack.
"We've got a complete team," said Hayes, who scored 12.
Tied at 60-60 with nine minutes left, Georgia's short bench made its mark. Jonas Hayes hit a medium jumper and Damien Wilkins scored twice in 15 seconds to give the Bulldogs a lead they would never relinquish. Wilkins scored 12 points.
"He's gaining my confidence more and more," Harrick said of Wilkins. "That's two games in a row he's played very well for us."
Leading only 76-74 with 1:23 remaining, the Bulldogs did something it was unable to do in regulation against Tennessee and in a narrow loss at Florida - hit free throws. Thomas and Chris Daniels made all four of their attempts each in the closing minutes, including all three one-and-one opportunities. The Bulldogs hit 17 of 18 free throws overall.
"That won the game, hitting those foul shots," said Hayes. "We worked on that a lot this team week. By the end of the season we'll be the best in the conference."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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