KNOXVILLE – Despite a fourth straight double-double from Vols’ forward Jarnell Stokes (16 points, 11 rebounds), Georgia knocked off Tennessee 68-62 on Wednesday night to extend its winning streak to four.
The Vols (11-10, 3-6 SEC) chipped away at a Georgia lead that swelled to 11 in the first half, but could never find their way completely back.
A flurry of first-half turnovers by the Vols helped Georgia (11-11, 5-4 SEC) build a 36-27 edge at the break.
“You make it tough on yourself when you get 11 turnovers in the first half,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “You’ve got to take care of the basketball. We shot 43 percent in the first half but you can’t turn it over like that. It’s tough to bounce back.”
But Tennessee slowly worked away that Georgia advantage early in the second half.
Jordan McRae’s acrobatic three-point play tied the game at 43 with 13:30 remaining. The Bulldogs then responded by scoring the next seven points to extend the lead to 50-43. Tennessee never led in the contest.
The Vols and Bulldogs swapped crucial buckets down the stretch, but a clutch 3-pointer by Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 51 seconds remaining gave the ‘Dawgs an insurmountable 66-58 advantage.
Caldwell-Pope led all scorers in the game with 24 points. The potential future NBA first-round draft pick was a pain for the Vols on both sides of the court. He hit 9 of 12 attempts from the field and used his 6-5 frame to disrupt the Vols’ perimeter offense.
“We obviously know he is a good player,” said Tennessee guard Skylar Mcbee. “I felt like in the first half we gave him to many easy shots and in the second half, I just don’t know.”
With NBA scouts from the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks in attendance, Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes recorded his fourth straight double-double with 16 points and 11 boards. The Vols made a noticeable effort in the second half to increase his touches, but despite him hitting a career-best 8 of 10 free-throw attempts, his efforts came up short.
“I thought it was another good effort by Jarnell,” Martin said. “He did a really good job shooting those free throws, 8 of 10 from the line and getting offensive rebounds. I thought he was very active considering two or three guys were on him all night. That was good to see.”
McRae added 17 points to lead Tennessee in scoring.
Despite a resilient comeback attempt by the Vols, the shots just kept falling for coach Mark Fox’s squad. The ‘Dawgs hit 50 percent of their field-goal attempts and knocked down 55 percent of their attempts from behind the arc.
“We always believed we had a really good 3-point shooting team,” Fox said. “Early in the year, we were probably not taking the right 3-point shots, but we always felt like had a really good 3-point shooting team.”
The loss hurts Tennessee’s already-dim postseason hopes. Its six SEC losses already matches the total from the 2011-12 season with nine conference games still to be played. The Vols will play their next two on the road at South Carolina and Vanderbilt. They hold an 0-6 mark in true road games this season.
With five road games remaining and home contests against No. 21 Missouri and No. 2 Florida, the Vols will need to finish strong for a chance at even qualifying for the NIT at this point.
“You have to have pride in what you’re doing,” Martin said. “You have to have commitment and pride. That’s the bottom line. You have to have pride to represent Tennessee the right way and represent each other.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga