Originally created 02/29/04

Saturday night was pivotal for both teams



COLUMBIA - Each team put itself in this stressful position. It was Georgia, not South Carolina, that snapped.

Specifically, it was Georgia senior Jonas Hayes. With the outcome still uncertain and the pressure building, Hayes spiked the ball angrily on the baseline. With that - and the crippling technical foul that ensued - he effectively spiked the Bulldogs chances of scaling another key rung toward credibility in the NCAA.

With a 12-0 run assisted by Hayes' mental breakdown, South Carolina won a Southeastern Conference game it absolutely had to win 63-47 at the Colonial Center.

With little margin for error, Georgia lost its composure and its late-season momentum.

For a couple of bubble teams, Saturday night's result went a long way toward determining postseason fates.

After leading most of the first 21 minutes, the Bulldogs found themselves in a small hole with eight minutes remaining. Trailing 52-44, Georgia reserve Buzz Wehunt stepped on the baseline, and Hayes blew up.

Josh Gonner's technical free throws and John Chappell's tip-in on the ensuing possession were the heart of a decisive run that put the Gamecocks ahead 60-44.

This was clutch stuff for Dave Odom's Gamecocks, who were reeling after consecutive road losses at Arkansas and Florida. They'd come too far and played too well most of the season to have it ultimately spoiled by an NIT designation. One more victory could potentially stamp its NCAA ticket.

Georgia's NCAA hopes might not be dead yet, but the NIT probably has Dennis Felton's number on speed dial.

In many respects, it was amazing that it came to this head in front of 17,814 fans at the Colonial Center.

Circumstances were much different 45 days ago, when the Gamecocks put a 21-point whuppin' on the Bulldogs in Georgia. South Carolina was on its way to an 18-2 record, and an NCAA bid seemed an inevitability. Georgia was headed toward a 1-5 SEC start and the brink of oblivion.

But in the chill of February and the heat of conference play, the roads started merging near limbo.

South Carolina came into Saturday night's game having lost five of its past seven games. Blowing a 12-point lead with 5:22 remaining against Mississippi State at home seemed to have taken a toll on the Gamecocks, and 20 wins wasn't looking as impressive.

Georgia, meanwhile, ignited once-dormant NCAA hopes with a series sweep of Kentucky, followed by consecutive wins over Florida and Tennessee. Suddenly the potential to reach 17 wins loomed as a magic number.

Among the data the NCAA Tournament selection committee studies are RPI rating, strength of schedule and late-season momentum.

Twenty-win seasons and .500 conference records aren't automatic qualifiers anymore, as was exhibited just three years ago when 21-10 Alabama went to the NIT while 16-14 Georgia was invited to the Big Dance.

With that history lesson in mind, South Carolina lagged Georgia significantly in all three areas of postseason concern.

South Carolina's schedule strength is ranked 107th among 326 teams. Georgia's ranks 25th. The all-important RPI lists the Gamecocks 45th and the Bulldogs 48th.

So Saturday night appeared to be a referendum for both teams. The Gamecocks desperately needed to turn its momentum up. The Bulldogs likewise needed a key road victory to shore up that flaw and keep its late surge going.

After Saturday night, it would be hard to argue that the Gamecocks don't deserve to end a six-year NCAA Tournament drought. Gamecock-swept Georgia will have a harder time talking its way in.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.