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Georgia rolls past LSU, 73-53

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

ATHENS, Ga. -- With the crowd on its feet, Jeremy Price kneeled to kiss the "G'' in the middle of Georgia's home court.

Price and the Bulldogs sure have come a long way.

After years of struggle brought on by an academic and pay-for-play scandal, Georgia took a huge step toward claiming an NCAA tournament bid with a 73-53 rout of LSU on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs earned their 20th victory and locked up a winning record in the Southeastern Conference with one game left in the regular season.

"I can't say for sure we're in the NCAA tournament," coach Mark Fox said, "but if I'm sitting here with the selection committee, I'd argue all day for my team. You're darn right I would. I think we've put ourselves in great position. But we still have games to play and we can't be satisfied."

That said, the final home game for the team's two seniors was a moment to be savored.

Fox had tears in his eyes when Price dropped to his knees at midcourt, knowing what he and Chris Barnes had been through in their college careers -- three coaches and three losing seasons before things finally turned around their final year.

"They're great kids," said Fox, who's in his second season at Georgia. "They could have made life hard on me when I came here. But they bought into what I asked them to do. I was really privileged to coach them."

The Bulldogs (20-9, 9-6) got off to a sluggish start, but Gerald Robinson led them back with 16 points. Georgia goes into the finale at SEC West leader Alabama assured of its first 20-win regular season that actually counts since 1996-97, Tubby Smith's final year as coach.

There was another in 2001-02 under Jim Harrick, but the embarrassing scandal that came to light in 2003 led to vacated wins and NCAA sanctions that sent the program into a long tailspin.

The hard times appear to be over.

After trailing 13-4 in the early going, Georgia was ahead 30-25 by the break and blew it open in the second half, putting on an impressive dunking display against the overmatched Tigers (11-19, 3-12), who have lost 12 of 13 games.

Dustin Ware finished with 15 points -- all on 3-pointers -- while Travis Leslie had 14 points and 10 rebounds. Price chipped in with 11 points, but star Trey Thompkins played only 22 minutes, scoring eight points, because of a toenail problem that might keep him out against Alabama.

Ralston Turner led LSU with 18 points.

Robinson got the Bulldogs rolling after halftime. He passed inside to Thompkins for a layup, then caught a lob pass from Ware for a thunderous dunk that led LSU to call a quick timeout. Robinson kept his foot on the pedal, slicing into the lane for a floater that gave the Bulldogs their first double-figure lead of the night, 36-25.

Ware swished his fourth 3-pointer, and Leslie blocked Turner attempting to drive the lane, zipping a pass to Robinson breaking the other way for a layup that made it 41-28.

LSU got as close as it would get, 41-32, before Robinson pulled off another play for the highlight package. He was going in for a layup with a step on the defense, but spotted Price coming up from behind. Robinson flipped back a no-look pass that set up Price for a jam that left the backboard shaking.

"This means a lot," Price said. "We've got a really good team, and our record shows that. We're going to win more games. This is far from over."

Until this season, about the only highlight for the seniors came way back in their freshman season, when last-place Georgia improbably won the 2008 SEC tournament, which was interrupted by a tornado.

"To win 20 games, that's something I'll always cherish," Barnes said. "We won't need a tornado or some fluke games to do it now."

LSU, which goes with three freshman starters, can only hope this difficult season leads to better times, as well.

"It was a bad matchup," coach Trent Johnson said. "We have three freshman out there playing with people like Leslie and Thompkins. We tried to keep it in the halfcourt, but they're skilled, talented and well-coached. They're a handful."

At the start, Georgia looked very much like a team that was looking ahead. The Bulldogs missed 10 straight shots as LSU raced out to its nine-point lead.

Ware brought back the Bulldogs from beyond the arc, connecting on back-to-back 3s that tied the game at 17. His third trey gave Georgia its biggest lead in the opening half, 26-19.

Aaron Dotson responded with a 3 of his own, breaking an LSU drought of more than 9 minutes without a field goal.