With Thursday’s game and the team’s postseason hopes hanging in the balance, Georgia put the ball in J.J. Frazier’s hands.
This inspired a press row observer to recall the ability of a former Georgia athletic icon to repeatedly come through when it mattered most.
Frazier was like Herschel, he said. No last name necessary (but, of course, it was Walker). Third-and-2, Georgia gave the football to Herschel. Herschel got the first down.
Because Frazier did his Herschel to Tennessee in a Southeastern Conference second-round game, he became Kentucky’s problem in Friday’s quarterfinals. With Tennessee leading by one point, Frazier scored eight of his team’s final 12 points. Georgia won 59-57.
When told of the Herschel reference, Georgia Coach Mark Fox smiled.
“Herschel spoke to our team two years ago,” he said. “As Herschel was speaking, I looked at Herschel and J.J. next to him. J.J. is about as big as one of his thighs. So we’re fortunate we don’t need 2 yards on third down with J.J. But if it’s two points, we got a chance.”
Frazier, who Georgia lists as 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, did not have one of his better games. He made only four of 13 shots, repeatedly missing the kind of contested driving layups he somehow routinely makes.
“I was awful,” he said. When asked why, he said, “I don’t know, brother. It was bad, wasn’t it?”
Not that bad. Frazier scored 17 points and, despite being the smallest player on the court, grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds.
And at what basketball parlance now calls “winning time,” Frazier made play after play.
“He has a big clutch gene,” teammate Juwan Parker said.
Frazier turned philosophical when the conversation turned to being counted upon to make plays under pressure.
“It comes with failures,” he said. “It comes with triumphs. There’s going to be times I miss in the clutch. There are times I’ll make them in the clutch. That comes with being a leader. That comes with being a senior. It comes with being a captain. I take pride in it. I love being in those moments.”
Like Kentucky on Friday, Tennessee on Thursday knew how Frazier can be an X-factor that can change a game dramatically.
“I do think he has that ‘it’ factor,” Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said Wednesday. “He also plays for a coach who is letting him create.”
The ability to create complicates the intent to contain. Speed and quickness combined with unpredictability is dangerous.
“What’s hard about guarding him is he’s so crafty and that fast-twitch muscle,” Barnes said. “Everybody knows the referees are watching the ball. They’re always going to protect the guy with the ball in his hand. He’s so good because he never picks up his dribble unless he knows what he’s going to do with it.”
With All-SEC forward Yante Maten returning against Tennessee (12 points, five rebounds), Frazier has one more teammate to pass to.
Fox did not argue about Frazier having the “it” factor.
“There’s guys who you’ve got to kind of set the table for and really structure a way for them to make a play,” the Georgia coach said. “But great competitors, guys who are really players, they’ve got a knack to go make plays. And, certainly, I think J.J. has that.”
His teammates spoke of how Frazier watches other pint-sized guards and tries to learn how to be productive despite being small. Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics is one such mentor via video study. Former UK star Tyler Ulis is another.
In the last five games of the regular season, Frazier averaged 29.8 points. In two games against Kentucky, he made 19 of 43 shots (five of 11 from three-point range) and averaged 10 free throw attempts and 29.5 points.
“He gets to his left hand, and because of his size, he really accelerates on layups,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “In other words, he’s not slowing down. He accelerates and lofts that ball up. It’s a hard thing for a big guy to guard when you’re trying to move your feet to stay in front.
“The other thing is he can shoot that three behind it. . . . You look at our league, and he’s one of the best in the league.”
On Wednesday, Fox saluted how Frazier has grown as a player: scoring average increasing each of his four seasons (3.7 ppg as a freshman, 18.7 ppg going into this year’s SEC Tournament).
“He’s just a winner,” the Georgia coach said. “He epitomizes what I think this experience should be about. He’s grown immensely as an individual and as a man and he’s become college educated and he’s obviously been extremely productive and he cares about winning.”
Frazier’s desire to win was on display against Tennessee.
“J.J. is, like, our heart,” Maten said. “The heart of our team. Most of our life comes through him.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia
What: Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal game
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
When: 1 p.m. EST
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: No. 1 seed Kentucky 26-5, No. 8 seed Georgia 19-13
Series: Kentucky leads 123-26
Last meeting: Kentucky won 82-77 on Feb. 18 in Athens, Ga.
At Nashville, Tenn.
Miss. State 79, LSU 52
Missouri 86, Auburn 83 (OT)
Georgia 59, Tennessee 57
Alabama 75, Miss. State 55
Vanderbilt 66, Texas A&M 41
Missouri vs. Ole Miss, (n)
1 p.m.: Kentucky vs. Georgia
3:30 p.m: South Carolina vs. Alabama
7 p.m.: Florida vs. Vanderbilt
9:30 p.m.: Arkansas vs. Missouri-Ole Miss winner