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Bulldogs’ win sets stage for showdown at LSU

Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox and the Bulldogs are in sole possession of third place in the SEC standings, but they could dip all the way to fifth with a loss Saturday against LSU. (Reuters)

Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox and the Bulldogs are in sole possession of third place in the SEC standings, but they could dip all the way to fifth with a loss Saturday against LSU. (Reuters)

ATHENS — The stage is set for a showdown in the bayou Saturday afternoon.

Georgia took care of business late Wednesday night at home against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs (17-12, 11-6 SEC) manhandled their visitors for the second time this season, 66-45. Georgia beat them by 20 three weeks ago in Starkville.

“Every win is a good win,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “But I thought that Mississippi State started the game with a greater determination than our team did. They were more prepared to play than we were. We were a little sluggish in everything we did. Fortunately we have a deep team.”

The victory — Georgia’s 11th in SEC play for the first time since 2003 — keeps the Bulldogs in sole possession of third place in the SEC. That’s a coveted position considering the top four spots come with a double-bye into the quarterfinal round of next week’s SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome.

The trouble is, Tennessee (18-11, 10-7) and Arkansas (21-9, 10-7) both won by large margins Wednesday and trail the Bulldogs by a game each. Both hold tiebreakers — over Georgia, meaning the Bulldogs could still slip to fifth should they lose to LSU, unless one of the other two loses.

Arkansas closes the season on the road at Alabama on Saturday, while Tennessee finishes at home against Missouri. Meanwhile, Georgia has a tough opponent Saturday in LSU. The Tigers (17-11, 8-8) play on the road at Vanderbilt on Thursday night.

“We’ve got a share of third place secured,” Fox said. “Now we’ll focus on the next game and see how it all plays out.”

As for Wednesday, the Bulldogs were sharp. They shot 43 percent from the floor and got 14 points from Kenny Gaines, 13 from Marcus Thornton and 10 from Charles Mann to improve to 14-2 at home for the season.

“It’s going to be a great game at LSU with what position we’re in,” said Gaines, who has averaged 18.3 points in Georgia’s past six games. “It’s going to be a key game for us to win that game on the road. We’ve just got to come out like we do every game, play hard and let our defense and rebounding speak for themselves.”

Donte’ Williams — Georgia’s lone senior on Senior Night — finished with two points and two rebounds. But he wasn’t hanging his head.

“I don’t have to score 30 points to feel happy,” Williams said. “It’s just about getting the win. Getting a ‘W’ in the win column is most important.

Mississippi State (13-7) falls to 3-14 in league play and remains winless on the road for the season. The visiting Bulldogs finished 0-for-15 from 3-point range and didn’t have a player in double figures.

Mississippi State sliced a big Georgia lead to nine points five minutes into the second half. But Georgia didn’t let the visitors keep hope long. By the 12:11 mark, Gaines put his team back out front by 17, 52-35, with a long 3-pointer from the left wing.

The Bulldogs delivered the ultimate insult at the end of the half. Trailing by 11, State dribbled out all but the last 10 seconds of the clock to get the half’s last shot. But Forte stole the ball from Fred Thomas, hit Mann with an outlet pass, who forwarded a perfect alley-oop pass to Gaines who slammed it home at the halftime buzzer for a commanding 13-point advantage.

Now that Georgia has big things to play for, Fox said it’s important that the team not change a thing.

“This group has to stay in the moment,” he said. “We’re not able to handle much more than that. We need to worry about tomorrow and having a good practice and just take it a day at a time.”