ATHENS — Georgia ran three different plays for Ricky McPhee, but he passed up the open shot each time.
Finally, he found one he liked.
McPhee scored 14 points, including a 3-pointer that put Georgia ahead to stay with just under 2« minutes remaining, and the Bulldogs held on for their second Southeastern Conference win, 61-57 over Vanderbilt on Wednesday night.
“It’s a relief to actually get in the win column for a change,” said freshman Dustin Ware, who got the assist on McPhee’s crucial basket.
Georgia (11-17, 2-11) led by 10 at halftime and stretched the margin as high as 15 in the second half, only to have Vanderbilt (16-11, 5-8) make a game of it down the stretch.
George Drake leaned into the lane to hit a jumper with 4:26 left, giving the Commodores a 54-53 lead and capping a 23-8 spurt that wiped out the Bulldogs’ big advantage. But the comeback seemed to sap Vandy’s energy — the visiting team didn’t make another shot other than free throws, finishing 31.4 percent from the field.
McPhee, who grew up in suburban Atlanta and transferred to Georgia after two years at Gardner-Webb, came through with the biggest shot after straggling up the court on a fast break. Ware spotted the open man, made a crosscourt pass and McPhee swished the 3 with 2:21 left to put Georgia ahead for good at 56-54.
“We set him up like three different times out of timeouts,” said Pete Herrmann, Georgia’s interim coach. “He came clean open, but didn’t shoot. I was like, ‘Ricky, what are we going to do here?”’
But McPhee knew what he was doing.
“Those were not good shots for me,” he said. “I felt like I needed to get a better shot. It worked out in the long run.”
A.J. Ogilvy led Vanderbilt with 12 points, but missed an open 3 from the top of the key that would have tied it with about one minute to go. Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley added 11 points for the Commodores in a matchup of the two lowest-scoring teams in the SEC.
Vanderbilt was averaging 69.5 points a game, and only Georgia was worse at 64.7.
The Commodores had hoped to improve their postseason hopes with a win, but this might be a killer of a loss when the NCAA invitations are handed out.
“It was close and we had a shot,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “We stopped rebounding and started committing turnovers and missed too many free throws. We just have to regroup and keep playing from here.”
Georgia was coming off a 22-point loss at Mississippi and hadn’t been close in most of its SEC losses, losing eight of 11 by double-figure margins.
But the Bulldogs found themselves in an unusual position at halftime — ahead.
Georgia built a 34-23 lead at the break, only the second time in 13 conference games the team has been on top through 20 minutes. The Bulldogs won the other time it happened, too, holding on for an 88-86 upset of Florida after leading by seven at the break.
Vanderbilt won the first meeting between the SEC East rivals, holding Georgia to a season low for points in a 50-40 victory at Nashville, Tenn., last month. The Bulldogs surpassed that total on Corey Butler’s 3-pointer with nearly 17 minutes to go, giving them a 41-28 lead.
“Up in Nashville, we weren’t aggressive and we scored only 40 points,” Herrmann said. “We wanted to stay aggressive all game on offense and defense. On defense, we wanted to put pressure on their players and dictate where the ball went. We especially wanted to pressure Ogilvy to wear him down.”
Ogilvy scored 18 in that first meeting on 6-of-9 shooting, but he wasn’t nearly as effective in the rematch. He was 3 of 7 from the field and made only 5 of 9 free throws, a performance that Herrmann attributed to the energy he exerted on defense.
“We wanted to make A.J. guard in all situations,” the Georgia coach said. “We knew if we made him guard, guard, rebound, rebound, he would wear down.”
A dunk by Chris Barnes gave Georgia its biggest lead, 43-28 with 15:12 remaining. Butler and Ware had 10 points apiece for the Bulldogs, who also did a good job protecting the basketball. They committed only 10 turnovers, a season low for an SEC game.
“This,” a relieved Herrmann said, “feels a little better.”