ATHENS — It wasn’t like one of those storybook in-your-face challenges you hear about, but it was a challenge nonetheless. Georgia’s Tom Crean was directing it at Rayshaun Hammonds, and the sophomore from Norcross answered it, resoundingly.
After getting blanked in the humiliating 46-point defeat at Tennessee last Saturday, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer was blanked in the first half of Wednesday night’s SEC home opener against Vanderbilt. At halftime came the challenge from Crean, then came the answer from Hammonds.
He made a 3-pointer on his first attempt 14 seconds into the second half and followed that up with 16 more points as Georgia blew out the Commodores 82-63 before 9,429 at Stegeman Coliseum.
Crean was beaming about Hammonds’ response afterward.
“It was quick; it wasn’t bad,” Crean said of his verbal challenge to Hammonds in the Bulldogs’ locker room. “It was, ‘Ray, we really need some rebounds. You want to get them off the bench or you want to get them right now?’ I don’t think he was used to hearing that. But it wasn’t in my Top 100 of challenges. It was mild.”
Even after going 0-for-4 and playing a season-low 16 minutes in the loss to the Vols, Hammonds came into Wednesday’s game leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 13.8 points per game. But he opened the first half with another 0-for-4 shooting effort, including 0-for-3 from 3-point range. Making it worse, he had but a single rebound to go with two fouls and two turnovers.
But after Crean’s challenge, Hammonds not only snagged rebounds as directed with five, but he was also 6-of-9 from the field, 2-of-3 from behind the arc and 5-of-5 from the foul line. He also added 2 blocks on the night the Bulldogs would collect 12 in the game.
Asked if it was his best half of basketball as a collegian, Hammonds had to think a moment while teammate Nicolas Claxton sat next to him nodding hard in the affirmative.
“I believe so, yeah,” said Hammonds, who also had a 31-point game against Illinois State earlier this season. “Yeah, I was just trying to be positive and stay focused. My coaches and teammates stayed positive with me and get down and helping me get my head right. So, yeah, that was probably my best half.”
It certainly was for Georgia, which desperately needed to get up off the mat after suffering its worse loss in 59 years at Tennessee last Saturday. It’s not going to get any easier, with a trip to No. 11 Auburn on Saturday and No. 18 Kentucky coming to Stegeman Coliseum next week. Those are just the next two of what sets up as a brutal January of SEC competition, interupted only by a Jan. 26 date with Texas in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
“I thought we’d respond (well); you’re never sure you’re going to win,” Crean said of coming back from the Tennessee debacle. “But I thought we’d respond because that’s not indicative of us. We’ve got to learn to play on the road. As I said to them before and after, the team that goes to Auburn, let’s not even look at the result, OK. But are we going to be the team that started the game at Tennessee or the team that had all the excitement here tonight. It can’t be about the home crowd or being comfortable. It’s got to be about togetherness. That’s what we’ve got to continue to learn.”
Georgia is learning that Hammonds can be quite the weapon when he’s on. As Crean said the key is figuring out “how to pull it out of him.”
Maybe a simple halftime challenge will do the trick. But getting that type of effort and performance for a whole game could do wonders for the Bulldogs.
“I’m really excited about the way Ray played,” Crean said.
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