Georgia basketball stifles Xavier comeback in first round of the NIT

By Ethan Wilcox

The University of Georgia men’s basketball team narrowly beat Xavier 78-76 in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday night despite leading by as many as 23 points in the second half.

The Bulldogs committed 12 fouls compared to 28 in their previous game against Florida and had 10 steals. Georgia shot for 43.8%, while dominating the paint with 44 points to Xavier’s 32, but the Bulldogs struggled to contain Xavier guard Desmond Claude, who scored 30 points. However, 15 Xavier turnovers and 14 fast-break points for the Bulldogs secured the win for Georgia.

“It was a good win for our program,” said Georgia head coach Mike White in the postgame press conference. “It was something that hopefully gives the returning players confidence moving forward, and it is obviously something we’ll use in recruiting.”

After a slow start from both teams, senior Russel Tchewa scored the first points of the game for the Bulldogs from the free-throw line. Both teams began to find offensive rhythm when senior Justin Hill hit back-to-back threes midway through the half to increase Georgia’s lead. A late turnover from Xavier allowed junior RJ Melendez to score a free basket for Georgia to end the half with a 46-34 lead.

Georgia carried its momentum into the second half, when senior Noah Thomasson’s layup began an 11-0 scoring run that junior Jalen DeLoach capped off with a dunk. Georgia’s lead sat at 23 points, but Xavier began to chip away at the deficit around the 11-minute mark after multiple 3-pointers from Claude.

Xavier reduced Georgia’s lead to just two points with less than two minutes to play after Georgia struggled to hit late shots. Freshman Silas Demary Jr. scored a layup to make it a two-possession game with less than 30 seconds remaining, but a missed free throw from Hill led to a quick layup from Xavier. 

On Georgia’s inbound, Hill got possession after Xavier forced a jump ball, but Hill stepped out of bounds resulting in a turnover. Xavier then tied the game when a block by Tchewa was ruled as goaltending, but an official review overturned the decision. Xavier retained possession after the block with 1.9 seconds remaining, but the Musketeers failed to get a shot off after strong defense from Tchewa.

Demary Jr. led the Bulldogs with 16 points and four assists, followed by Melendez who scored 12 points and had four steals. Senior Frank Anselem-Ibe led with four offensive rebounds, while freshman Dylan James led with six defensive rebounds. Thomasson and Hill scored 12 and 10 points respectively, as four players hit double digits for Georgia.

The Bulldogs were invited to play in the NIT after they were eliminated by Florida from the SEC Tournament. The game was Georgia’s first postseason matchup in seven seasons, and over 2,700 fans attended. Entering the game, Xavier had never lost a matchup in the first round of the NIT, winning their previous nine. 

“We’re honored to be a part of the NIT, and honored to survive and advance,” said White.

Georgia will take on the winner of Wake Forest versus Appalachian State in the second round of the NIT.