Jordan McRae, a 6-foot-5 Tennessee guard, hails from tiny Midway, Ga., tucked along the Georgia coastline about 30 miles southeast of Savannah.
Traveling north up I-75 from Midway to Knoxville, a detour to the town of Greenville, Ga., is only a minor inconvenience.
Greenville is the home of another 6-5 guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Perhaps McRae should have swung by and scooped him up on a trip home once upon a time.
In a Wednesday night meeting between McRae’s Vols and Caldwell-Pope’s Georgia Bulldogs, the latter got the better of the former. Scoring eight of his game-high 24 points in the game’s final five minutes, Caldwell-Pope powered Georgia to a 68-62 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Late in games, when you have to get key stops, every man has to do his part,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “That’s really having pride defensively. Especially not allowing their best player to beat you. Put that ball in somebody else’s hand and let somebody else beat you. You can’t allow the best player to beat you.”
If uncertain, realize Caldwell-Pope is Georgia’s best player.
McRae had little reason to smile, despite 17 points of his own. The Vols never led and, thanks to 11 first-half turnovers, they trailed 35-26 at halftime.
“We need to start taking better care of the ball,” said McRae, who contributed five of the turnovers . “I don’t think it was their pressure. Speaking for myself, I was trying to make a lot of plays out there. I was trying to get guys going, things like that, and I was forcing too many passes.”
“I think we shot about 46 percent in the first half,” Martin added. “But you can’t turn it over 11 times. It’s tough to bounce back.”
Georgia vs Tennessee, Feb. 6, 2013
Caldwell-Pope was brilliant. A shooting stroke as sweet as a peach tossed in a 3-pointer from the wing with the Vols trailing by just one point and 4 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.
With under two minutes to go, the sophomore used a jump stop and a floater to turn a three-point lead into a 63-58 advantage.
After UT failed to answer, Caldwell-Pope delivered a right cross to the chin with another 3.
“He’s a good player,” McRae said dryly.
Jarnell Stokes arrived late in the game. Not literally. Watching a first half go by begging for entry passes, he attempted just two-field goal attempts. Finally getting his hands on the ball following halftime, the sophomore scored 14 points after the break.
“I thought he was very active, considering the fact that there were two or three guys huddled around him all night,” Martin said of Stokes, who finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds for his team-high eighth double-double of the year.
Georgia (11-11, 5-4 SEC), meanwhile, notched its fourth straight win, its longest SEC winning streak since 2003.
After halftime, Tennessee (11-10, 3-6) pieced together an 11-3 run early in the second half to lift some spirits inside quiet Thompson-Boling Arena. Josh Richardson scored six in the spurt, including a slick layup through traffic in transition. McRae capped it with a driving layup resulting in a three-point play.
Tied 43-43 with 13:29 left, Georgia responded.
The Bulldogs stretched their lead back to nine, forcing the Vols to fight back once again.
They did, cutting the lead to 54-53 with 4:56 left.
Caldwell-Pope took care of the rest.
He was aided by fellow guards Kenny Gaines and Vincent Williams, who added 12 and 10, respectively.
Georgia finished the night hitting 11-of-20 3-pointers.
“They came in with a lot of confidence,” Martin said. “What happens is, if you allow a team to get their heads up, and get in a rhythm, that’s a result of it.”
UT point guard Trae Golden watched courtside for the second straight game. The Power Springs, Ga., native remains out with a strained hamstring.
Martin said he’s still uncertain of a potential return date.
Sitting at 0-6 in true road games, the Vols have back-to-back away dates at South Carolina and Vanderbilt on the docket.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn