By David Brandt/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Gerald Robinson juked to his right and then stepped back, letting loose a high-arching 15-footer that swished through the net.
It was a pretty shot at a crucial moment, and Robinson couldn’t help but admire his handiwork for a minute, back-peddling while holding a shooting pose.
Robinson scored a game-high 23 points — including that game-sealing jumper with 59 seconds remaining — as Georgia knocked off Mississippi State 71-61 in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Thursday night.
“That jumper, at that time, it felt very good to see it go down,” Robinson said.
Dustin Ware and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope both added 13 points.
Georgia stretched its lead to 54-41 on Robinson’s layup with 8:12 remaining, but Mississippi State had one last rally. Jalen Steele scored nine points in 90 seconds, and his final 3-pointer pulled the Bulldogs within 60-57 with 3:44 remaining.
But Georgia (15-16) — the tournament’s No. 11 seed — held on for the surprising win. Robinson’s late jumper gave the Bulldogs an insurmountable 66-59 lead. He was good all night, making 10 of 19 shots from the field and adding five assists.
Georgia shot 51 percent from the field (26 of 51) and had just seven turnovers.
“That’s a terrific win for us,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “We beat a very good basketball team.”
Sixth-seeded Mississippi State (21-11) was led by Steele’s 19 points. Brian Bryant scored 11 and Dee Bost added 10.
MSU’s Arnett Moultrie had a SEC-best 18 double-doubles this season, but finished with just seven points and eight rebounds.
Mississippi State has lost six of its past eight. Georgia has won three of four and will face Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Georgia had already beaten Mississippi State once this season — a 70-68 overtime decision in Starkville, Miss. — and it started a downhill spiral for MSU that included a five-game losing streak and a tumble from the national rankings.
And Georgia was a handful once again, outplaying Mississippi State in nearly every facet.
Mississippi State’s NCAA tournament resume took a major hit with the loss. Missing the tournament would be a crushing blow for a team that was ranked No. 15 in the nation just a month ago, but fell apart in February and March.
“It hurts,” Mississippi State’s Renardo Sidney said. “I know we’re one of the better teams down here in the SEC tournament and when we just don’t go out there and play hard and we don’t have no heart — like I said, we just came out flat in the second half and it was a hard loss.”
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said he hoped the NCAA tournament committee would look at his team’s entire body of work and not just the recent slide. Players were also optimistic, but there will be plenty of sweating until Sunday.
Georgia has struggled for much of the season, but improved during February. The Bulldogs came into the tournament after winning two of their final three regular-season games, including an impressive 76-62 victory over Florida.
“We’re finally comfortable,” Fox said. ” … We’ve got a rotation that guys are used to and we understand the roles. We’ve just improved as a team.”
Georgia last won the SEC tournament with a miracle run in 2008, winning four games in four days after finishing 4-12 in league play.
Early, it didn’t look good for Georgia.
Mississippi State controlled the opening minutes and a powerful, two-handed Wendell Lewis jam in traffic gave the Bulldogs an early 14-7 lead.
But Georgia recovered and stayed close before taking a 29-27 lead on Nemanja Djurisic’s long 3-pointer with 1:03 remaining. Georgia led 31-29 at halftime and then cruised in the second half, shooting 51 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes.
Djurisic scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.