ATHENS — Marcus Thornton's knees betrayed him so often that he could not even trust his own body.
Basketball is fun again for Thornton, who scored 17 points and claimed 12 rebounds, both season highs, to lead Georgia to a 74-61 victory over Florida Atlantic on Sunday.
As a sophomore, Thornton missed five games after surgery on his right knee. He missed all but nine games of what would have been his junior year when he had surgery on his left knee. He was granted a medical red-shirt season.
"Last year, at the start of the year, he did not know what his body would do," said Georgia Coach Mark Fox. "He was out of rhythm. It took him a while to get comfortable. He is confident in his body and confident in his game. He is playing really well."
"He is in rhythm," said frontcourt mate Nemanja Djurisic. "We try to get the ball to him any time we can. He is a big part of why we are winning."
Georgia (3-1) held a comfortable 10-point lead with 7 minutes to play, but over the next 3 minutes Thornton scored seven of the Bulldogs' 11 points, capitalizing on foul trouble by Florida Atlantic's inside defenders. Both C.J. Turman of nearby Madison, Georgia, and Kelvin Penn fouled out.
Thornton said that at times for the last couple of years it felt like he was in somebody else's body.
"That is an interesting way to put it," he said. "You adjust to playing within yourself your whole life, and then when some of those things are taken away temporarily, it becomes hard to get readjusted."
Georgia's biggest lead came at 68-50 with 3:22 to play after Charles Mann hit two free throws. Florida Atlantic (1-3) got within 11 late, but never closer.
The Bulldogs also got 15 points from Kenny Gaines and 10 rebounds from Djurisic.
Marquan Botley led Florida Atlantic (1-3) with a season-high 20 points. Jackson Trapp equaled his season high with 15 points. Penn and Justin Massey scored 11 apiece.
The teams traded leads early before Botley hit back-to-back layups to put Florida Atlantic ahead 16-12 with 12:50 in the first half.
Georgia, however, went on a 14-2 run to break a 21-21 tie. Six different Bulldogs scored one basket apiece, and Cameron Forte made a free throw to stretch the lead to 35-23 with 45 seconds to go in the half. Backup point guard J.J. Frazier's 3-pointer capped the rally.
Botley, who tallied 10 in the first half, made a pair of layups in the last 30 seconds of the half to narrow the margin to 35-27, Georgia.
The Bulldogs quickly regained their double-digit lead in the second half, pushing their margin to 14 when Djursic was awarded a basket on a goaltending call, making it 49-35 with 12:54 to play.
It was not until Thornton began to exert his inside presence that Georgia pulled away.
Florida Atlantic freshman C.J. Turman was playing just 27 miles from his hometown of Madison, Georgia, where last year he led Morgan County to its first-ever state championship, but managed just two points and five rebounds before fouling out.
Two of Nemanja Djurisic's four baskets for Georgia came on defensive goal-tending calls against the Owls.
ON THE RISE
Florida Atlantic freshman guard Justin Massey of Coconut Creek, Florida, walked on to start every game for the Owls so far. He scored a team-high 17 points at Harvard. His twin brother Jason, a reserve guard at Brown, will play against Harvard twice this year.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Asked how critical it was to play well in New York City at the NIT Season Tip-off, Georgia's Mark Fox said, "A must-win in life is when they tell you that you have cancer. That is a must-win. It is important for us that we go up there and play well and come home with something."
"Nemi (Djurisic) could have had a triple-double if he had really wanted to," said Coach Mark Fox. "He is a very complete player and impacted the game a lot of different ways tonight." Djurisic finished with 10 rebounds, eight points and eight assists. Georgia has never had a single player get a triple-double in a game.
Florida Atlantic hosts Ave Maria Sunday afternoon.
Georgia plays No. 13 Gonzaga Wednesday in New York City in the NIT Season Tip-Off.