- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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DULUTH, Ga. -- You can slam the door on the Jim Harrick scandal at Georgia. In fact, kick it harder than the Bulldogs kicked their former coach back to California after he and his son drove the Bulldogs' basketball program into the ground with a litany of NCAA rules violations and other transgressions.
Because on Saturday, the Bulldogs took their first big step back toward basketball legitimacy with a stunning 96-83 upset of No. 16 Gonzaga in front of a crowd of 6,812 at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in suburban Atlanta. They defeated the same Gonzaga team that led then-No. 2 North Carolina by 16 points and won by 8; led Texas by 28 and won by 10; and led then-No. 8 Washington by 22 and won by 20.
It was Georgia's first victory over a ranked opponent since upsetting then-No. 8 Kentucky 74-68 on Feb. 14, 2004. Georgia had gone 0-7 against ranked opponents in the two-plus seasons since then.
"This is a big step for us," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "We've been building constantly and building to this level. It is only one game, but it's an important statement beating a good team like this and a team that had just been pounding people this season.
"It's not one of those anonymous wins. It was on national TV and everybody got to see it. We've been doing a lot of impressive things to this point. But this has to show people that we're ready to compete."
Georgia (7-1) will have more chances to beat good teams. During the next three weeks, Georgia plays at rival Georgia Tech and surprising Clemson, hosts No. 7 Wisconsin on Dec. 31 and then opens the SEC season at No. 5 Florida on Jan. 6.
"This is the biggest win in my whole career," said Georgia guard Levi Stukes, a senior who came to school the season after Harrick was fired, then labored through 16-15, 8-20 and 15-15 campaigns. "Just fighting every day with these guys and going through the ups and downs, this is probably the biggest win we've had."
As the final 16 seconds ticked off the clock, Stukes dribbled near midcourt, pumped his fist into the air and threw the basketball high into the air after the buzzer sounded.
"Hopefully, this just opened some people's eyes that we're here to play and compete with anybody in the country," said senior forward Steve Newman, who scored four points and grabbed four rebounds and several crucial loose balls.
Against Gonzaga, Georgia scored more than 90 points for the fifth time in eight games; shot 53.9 percent and had a 29-22 rebounding advantage, including 13 offensive rebounds in the second half. Georgia also forced Gonzaga into a season-high 21 turnovers and converted them into 30 points.
"Georgia's a good team, man," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "They've got a lot of offensive firepower. They've got athleticism and execute and get themselves good shots. In their transition game, they just ran by us. They're a good team. They're an NCAA Tournament team. We knew that going in."
And Gonzaga certainly knows it now. Georgia led by as many as 16 points, despite Gonzaga making 11-of-22 3-pointers in the game. Gonzaga guard Derek Raivio scored 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting, and guard Jeremy Pargo added 17 points and five assists.
But the high-scoring duo was no match for Georgia's trio of guards. Stukes matched a career-high with 25 points, made 4-of-8 3-pointers and harassed Raivio for much of the game. Junior Sundiata Gaines scored 21 points with eight rebounds, six steals and five assists. Sophomore Mike Mercer scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
"We had no answer for them on the offensive end," Few said. "We never did string out many stops and when we did, we just allowed them to go get their mistakes. Having 21 turnovers is pathetic. It's just players trying to do too much. Our problem has been too many unforced errors -- serving the ball right into the net."
Georgia doesn't have the front-court talent to match its backcourt play, but the Bulldogs have more than enough bodies. Five players got time in the paint and combined for 27 points and 12 rebounds. They were more than effective on defense. After Gonzaga forward Josh Heytvelt scored 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting in the first half, he didn't attempt a shot in the second half for more than 14 minutes. He finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
"He has no conviction to get the ball inside," Few said. "We're trying to run stuff to get him inside. He keeps taking the path of least resistance, which is to float outside and shoot the 3, which he can do. But we're never going to get where we need to be if all he's going to do is spend time out on the 3-point line. He did not give us a post presence the entire game until there were four minutes left."
Gonzaga (9-3) lost for the second time in three games and plays No. 6 Duke at Madison Square Garden in New York on Dec. 21.
"We haven't figured out how to protect that lofty status and ranking," Few said. "Our teams in the past figured out how to do that, but this team hasn't."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With one nationally televised win over a ranked opponent, Georgia sent a clear message that the Dawgs are a force to be reckoned with, Mark Schlabach writes.