By Paul Newberry
AP Sports Writer
ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia is eager to get a couple of days off at the Southeastern Conference tournament.
With one more win, the Bulldogs will have their spot in the quarterfinals.
Kenny Gaines scored 14 points and Georgia overcame a sluggish start to keep its hold on third place in the SEC, routing Mississippi State 66-45 Wednesday night.
The top four SEC teams receive a bye through the first two rounds of the tourney, which will be held next week in Atlanta. Georgia leads Tennessee and Arkansas by a game and can clinch third place with a win Saturday at LSU, the regular-season finale.
“That’s very important,” Gaines said. “If you get to skip those first two days, you have more time to mentally rest and physically rest.”
Georgia (17-12, 11-6 SEC) still hopes to make a run at the NCAAs, though a middling RPI ranking likely means it would have to knock off LSU and at least beat either No. 1 Florida or No. 25 Kentucky in the SEC tournament.
Coach Mark Fox doesn’t want his team thinking too far ahead.
“This group has to stay in the moment,” he said. “They can’t handle much more than that.”
To drive that point home, Fox called a timeout with his team up by 19 points after Gaines got a little too flashy on a drive to the basket, passing up an easy shot to flip the ball back to Nemanja Djurisic for a layup.
“Now that we’ve had some success, we need to know how to handle success,” Fox said. “That was just a little reminder.”
Showboating aside, Gaines has led Georgia’s resurgence, averaging 18.3 points over the last six games while hitting more than 50 percent from 3-point range.
Earlier in the season, Fox felt the sophomore guard was trying too hard to replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia’s leading scorer from a year ago who now plays in the NBA.
“He felt like he needed to be Kentavious,” Fox said. “That’s not who he is. He needed to be Kenny.”
Taking control early
Georgia trailed 16-8 in the early going but took control before the first half was done, leading 37-24 at the break.
Last-place Mississippi State (13-17, 3-14) is closing out another dismal year under second-year coach Rick Ray, who went 10-22 in his debut season. His team shot just 34 percent (17 of 50) and had no one in double figures.
Georgia swept the season series, winning the two meetings by a combined 41 points.
“The big thing for us right now is that we don’t handle adversity very well and we’re not very skilled offensively,” Ray said.
Mississippi State had just four assists and missed all 15 of its attempts from beyond the arc.
“If you don’t have an offensively skilled team,” Ray said, “you need to be tough on defense.”
In a repeat of the teams’ first game at Starkville, Georgia got off to a rough start before turning things around with its superior depth, closing out the first half on a 29-8 run. The home team knocked down seven straight shots after beginning 2-of-13 from the field.
Mississippi State ended the half with an especially brutal stretch.
With 14 seconds left on the shot clock, I.J. Ready fouled Charles Mann far away from the basket. After Mann sank both free throws, Mississippi State tried to run the clock down as much as possible before getting off a final shot. But Trivante Bloodman turned the ball over driving toward the basket, andGeorgia took off the other way with 5 seconds left — enough time for Mann to flip a lob pass to Gaines for a thunderous dunk just before the buzzer.
Mann and Gaines chest-bumped before Georgia ran off the court to a raucous ovation from the sparse crowd, up comfortably by 13.
When the teams met three weeks ago, Georgia fell behind by 14 points in the first half before rallying to win 75-55 — its biggest road triumph in the past three seasons.
Marcus Thornton added 13 points and Mann had 10. In all, 10 players scored for Georgia.
Roquez Johnson and Craig Sword led Mississippi State with 9 points.
“We have to play tough for the whole game,” Johnson said. “That has to change for us to improve in the future.”