ATHENS — For the second consecutive year, Georgia scheduled a morning game to accommodate some 4,000 local elementary school children, faculty and staff who visited Stegeman Coliseum on Thursday.
It seemed as if some of the Bulldogs may have missed their wake-up call, however, as they found themselves in a battle with Gardner-Webb, requiring a run in the last five minutes of the game to take a 58-49 victory.
"I thought both teams had a tough time with the morning start," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "I thought our team had a little zombie look to them - couldn't even pass and catch it cleanly to start the game. We just never quite found a rhythm - give (Gardner-Webb's) defense credit for that, too."
Georgia, which shot 38.3 percent (18 of 47) from the field and committed 19 turnovers, held a pair of 10-point leads early in the second half but Gardner-Webb stayed close, even moving to within one point (38-37) on a 3-point play by Josh Castellanos. But the Bulldogs went on a 20-12 run in the final five minutes to hold off their opponents.
Georgia (5-4) has won four consecutive games and is above .500 for the first time since its season opener against Wofford. Gardner-Webb, which lost 85-66 on Monday to No. 8 Duke, managed just 12 first-half points on Thursday and fell to a 6-7 record.
Freshman Juwan Parker, who earned his first start Thursday and led Georgia with a career-high 12 points and nine rebounds, admitted that the atmosphere created by the excited buzzing of thousands of kids was somewhat distracting in the beginning.
"We were a little out of rhythm; I guess the early game got us a little bit," Parker said. "But we finally calmed down and figured it out. It was wild. I think they gave me a little too much energy. I was a little sped-up from the crowd. But it was fun. I was glad they came."
Marcus Thornton, who missed much of the last two seasons due to knee injuries, followed Parker with 11 points and seven rebounds. No other Georgia players scored in double figures, although Donte' Williams added nine points, Charles Mann (returning after missing time the last two weeks with a bone bruise) scored eight points and Nemanja Djurisic contributed eight points off the bench.
Despite scoring 19 points off Georgia turnovers, Gardner-Webb was unable to overcome a miserable shooting percentage (31.5 percent, 17 of 54) and was frequently whipped on the glass, getting outrebounded by the Bulldogs 46-27.
Georgia's 32 defensive rebounds thwarted any semblance of an inside game for Gardner-Webb as the Runnin' Bulldogs managed just 16 points in the paint and five second-chance points.
"We weren't good enough offensively today," Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said. "We shot 31 percent and we scored 12 points in the first half, which just isn't going to get it done this season."
Gardner-Webb had two players score in double figures. Naji Hibbert had 14 points (on 6 of 15 shooting) and Tyler Strange added 10 points, connecting on a trio of 3-pointers.
"Offensively, we just didn't show up at all in the first half," Strange said. "We held them to enough points where we could win the game today, but offensively we didn't come through."
Last season, Georgia began the year at 2-7 and never really got the traction it wanted after that, finishing at 15-17 overall and 9-9 in the Southeastern Conference. Nine games into this season, the Bulldogs are feeling a little more confident this will be a better year.
"We dug ourselves out of a hole and now the fun begins," Parker said. "We've got to keep competing and keep playing hard so we don't dig ourselves in a hole again."
"It feels good," Mann said. "Now we have to keep on improving. We have to remember how last year was and how tough it was. We've got to build from here and keep on getting better."