Iona capitalized on Georgia’s struggles from the line to come away Saturday with an 81-78 overtime win, thanks in part to a 3-pointer by senior guard Curtis Dennis, who came off the bench cold in overtime.
“We don’t have the size or the athleticism,” Cluess said, “but we just fought and fought. They got to the foul line 37 times, and lucky for us it was not one of their better days on the foul line. That gave us an opportunity, and we seized it.”
Georgia freshman forward Brandon Morris, who made his first start, has seen a lot less college basketball than Cluess, but he too could spot the obvious as the Bulldogs shot 54.1 percent from the line (20-of-37).
“We missed 17 free throws,” Morris said. “If we make three more of those we win. It is that simple.”
It was even more elementary in overtime when Georgia missed nine of 15 free throws, including Nemanja Djurisic’s attempt to tie the game at 79 with 3.5 seconds to play. He made his first foul shot and missed the second, leaving Georgia down 79-78.
Lamont Jones led Iona (4-4) with 25 points. Sean Armand added 18, and A.J. English 17.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Charles Mann scored 18 apiece for Georgia (2-7). Donte’ Williams scored 16, and Morris 12.
In overtime, Georgia freshman Kenny Gaines hit a jumper in the circle with 34 seconds left to put the Bulldogs up 76-75, despite the poor free-throw shooting.
Dennis came off the bench and hit a 3-pointer, his only basket of the game, with 19 seconds to play, putting Iona up 78-76.
Williams missed the first of two free throws to tie with 12 seconds left. Iona’s Jones missed the second of two with eight seconds to play. On the rebound, Georgia passed long to a streaking Djurisic, and he was fouled hard before he could attempt a shot.
Djurisic hit the first free throw, but missed the second, forcing the Bulldogs to foul Armand. He hit two free throws to account for the final margin.
Georgia coach Mark Fox was despondent after the game.
“That was a tough loss,” he said. “I am sick of losing like our team is. They made some big baskets to beat us, so you have to give them credit for that.
“But we have to put ourselves in the position to win. Our team has not learned how to win yet. We missed 16 free throws in the second half alone. I think we have shot over 6,000 free throws in practice, maybe 6,500, and we make over 75 percent. We have not transferred that to the game. That is very frustrating.”
Morris had scored 15 points in just 50 minutes of action the first eight games, but he was switched to power forward in the middle of the week and started in place of injured Marcus Thornton. Fox said the Georgia offense was somewhat limited because of Morris’s lack of familiarity with the patterns of the power forward.
Mann was another freshman who came off the bench to play the point, but his 18-point effort was marred by a 7-for-13 day at the line.
“We don’t want to throw anyone under the bus on free-throw shooting,” Fox said. “It was a team loss.”
Iona bolted to a 23-11 lead after Armand’s two free throws with 11:46 to play. The Gaels hit five of their first eight shots from beyond the 3-point line. The Gaels still led 30-23 with 6:29 to go in the first half after Taaj Ridley’s short jumper.
But the Bulldogs discovered an inside game. Williams made back-to-back dunks followed up by back-to-back breakaway layups by Gaines to give Georgia its first lead, 31-30, with 3:52 remaining in the half.
The Bulldogs got careless in the last minute of the half, but managed a 36-35 halftime lead when Caldwell-Pope swished a 3-pointer from just beyond half court as the clock hit zero.
Freshmen Mann and Morris sparked an 11-0 run early in the second half that boosted Georgia to a 48-41 lead with 13:09 to play after Morris fed Tim Dixon for a layup.
But Mann and Caldwell-Pope went to the bench for a rest, and Iona rallied with 10 straight points to retake the lead at 51-48. Armand converted a three-point play and made a 3-point jumper during the Gaels’ comeback. A pair of free throws by Williams interrupted what became a 15-2 run by Iona.
Caldwell-Pope had a tip-in with 7:01 left to snap a 6-minute stretch without a field goal, and then added a jumper with 5:34 left. Mann followed with a whirlybird layup, and Caldwell-Pope added a steal and slam to put Georgia ahead 62-60 with 4:29 remaining.
Morris missed two free throws with 1:11 to go, so Armand’s 3-pointer from deep in the corner tied the score at 66 with 54.8 seconds to go.
The Bulldogs then missed four shots — two jumpers by Caldwell-Pope sandwiched around tip tries by Morris and Williams. After Caldwell-Pope’s second miss, the ball bounced off Williams out of bounds, giving Iona possession with 13.5 seconds remaining. English’s jumper missed right at the end of regulation.
It was the second overtime loss at home for Georgia this season. Southern Miss won 62-60 Nov. 15.
“We are off to a worse start than I anticipated,” Fox said. “I still like our team. We are not playing complete enough to win. There are prep schools that are playing an older lineup than we had on the floor for much of the night. Still, it is my job to get us to win some games.”