Hightower leads Georgia past Savannah State in Crean’s debut
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Following his debut as Georgia’s coach, Tom Crean already knew where his new team must improve.
“We’ve got to learn how play with a lead,” Crean said.
Teshaun Hightower scored a career-high 18 points, Nicolas Claxton had 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Georgia survived a slow start to the second half to beat Savannah State 110-76 on Friday night.
After leading by 25 points at halftime, Georgia’s lead shrank to nine points early in the second half as Savannah State’s frenzied 3-point assault began to pay off.
“Our energy dropped a little bit,” Claxton said.
Following a missed jam by Georgia’s Mike Edwards, Zaquavian Smith’s 3 cut the Bulldogs’ lead below 10 points, at 63-54, for the first time since the opening minutes.
William “Turtle” Jackson answered with a 3-pointer for Georgia, followed by Tye Fagan’s three-point play, to push the advantage back to 15 points at 69-54. A jam by freshman Amanze Ngumezi with 4:46 remaining pushed the lead to 30 points for the first time at 96-66.
Crean said he was happy with the way his players responded to the mini-crisis.
“We weren’t playing well and nobody panicked,” Crean said.
Tyree Crump had 14 points, while making four 3-pointers, as Georgia (1-0) withstood 57 3-point shots by Savannah State (0-2). The Tigers made 17 3s.
“I’ve never coached against anything like this pace,” Crean said.
Crean, the former Indiana and Marquette coach, is expected to raise Georgia from an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference. Former coach Mark Fox took Georgia to only two NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons.
Crean, who celebrated with fans in the students section following the game, couldn’t have asked for a better start to his debut.
The Bulldogs scored the first 14 points of the game as Savannah State started off 0 for 12 from the field, including 0 for 8 on 3-pointers. Georgia led 59-34 at halftime.
Jahlin Smith led the Tigers with 20 points. Zaquavian Smith had 17.
Savannah State, playing only its third game against in-state rival Georgia, and its first since 2005, tested the Bulldogs by setting a fast pace. The Tigers, who led the nation in 3-point attempts and 12.2 3-pointers per game last season, continued their relentless long-range attack against Georgia.
“I’ve never played a team that shot the ball like that,” Crump said. “We expected it, but I’ve never seen it like that in my life.”
Crump said Crean remained calm when Georgia’s lead began to shrink in the second half.
Crump said Crean’s message was “keep fighting, execute the offense. Everything will take care of itself.”
Crean has promised the Bulldogs also will spread the floor and rely heavily on 3s — though not at Savannah State’s pace. Georgia made 11 of 27 3s.
Savannah State: The Tigers rely on 3-pointers, and the results can be ugly when the shots aren’t falling. Savannah State missed its first 12 shots from the field, including eight 3-pointers, while falling behind 14-0.
Georgia: The Bulldogs spread the floor and opened room for inside baskets early, including on back-to-back jams by Claxton to open the game. There was ample evidence the Georgia players are still learning Crean’s offense. Bad passes played a big role in 23 turnovers.
Georgia’s 59 first-half points were its most in a half since scoring 60 in the second half against Jacksonville State on Nov. 9, 2007, also a season-opener.
Claxton posted his first career double-double while setting career highs for points and rebounds. He set another high with five blocks.
Savannah State: Host Middle Georgia on Sunday.
Georgia: At Temple on Tuesday night.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25