Georgia finding new hope in SEC under first-year coach White
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By CHARLES ODUM
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Mike White is making an impact in his first season as Georgia's coach.
After five consecutive losing seasons in Southeastern Conference games, the Bulldogs are 14-7 and 4-4 in the league under White.
Georgia has made its way to the middle of the SEC standings by beating three of the four teams tied for last place. The good news for White is the Bulldogs no longer rank as one of the bottom teams, one year after finishing 1-17 in the conference.
White knows his job of building a winner is far from finished.
"We've gotten better throughout the year," White said after Saturday night's 81-78 overtime win over South Carolina. "We still have room for improvement, obviously."
The Bulldogs won three of their first four SEC games before losing three straight, including an ugly 70-41 loss at then-No. 4 Tennessee on Wednesday night. Georgia snapped the skid by beating South Carolina after trailing by 12 points in the second half.
"What have I learned? We've got some fighters," White said. "We're pretty connected. We've got a healthy locker room. We've got guys that like each other. We're a resilient group that has found a way to win some close games. Hopefully we can keep a bunch more close and we can steal a few."
White was hired from Florida only three days after Georgia fired Tom Crean. Georgia finished no better than 10th in the SEC in four seasons under Crean and hit a low point with a 6-26 overall record last season.
Georgia's most impressive win under White came in its SEC opener, beating then-No. 22 Auburn 76-64 on Jan. 4. The Bulldogs visit Auburn, which moved to No. 25 in Monday's AP Top 25 poll, in a rematch on Wednesday night.
White is building around defense, and full-court pressure was a key against South Carolina. Guard Jussaun Holt, who had five steals against the Gamecocks in only his fourth start, was a key to the defense.
"I feel like that's our niche," Holt said. "That's what we're good at. We're going to take pride on defense."
South Carolina is one of four teams tied for last at 1-7 in SEC games. Georgia also has wins over two other teams in that last-place group, Mississippi and Mississippi State.
Georgia fans can't be picky about seeing the Bulldogs lean on wins over last-place teams. The Bulldogs haven't finished better than 7-11 in the league since a 9-9 mark in the 2016-17 season under coach Mark Fox. Georgia's last NCAA tournament appearance came in 2015.
White hopes the comeback win over South Carolina helps to build confidence for the second half of the conference schedule. He knows Georgia's best hope for a winning season is to survive more close games.
"Really all year most of our wins ... have been grind-it-out games, haven't been overly pretty," White said. "That's kind of been our identity as a team. We've got a bunch of guys who play hard. We've got to play that way to have a chance."
A team coming off a one-win season in the conference isn't going to complain about an ugly victory over a last-place team.
"It was real big," said Mardrez McBride after scoring a career-high 17 points. "Losing can be contagious, but also winning can be contagious. It feels good to get back in the win column and hopefully keep it going."
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Updated January 30, 2023