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Post Lady Dogs headed to 16th Sweet 16

Thursday March 23, 2006

There have been 25 NCAA women’s tournaments. Georgia has appeared in 23 of them. In those 23 trips, Georgia has now advanced to the regionals (Sweet 16) 16 times. It’s an amazing feat of consistency matched or bettered by less than a handful of programs.

Georgia advances to the 2006 Sweet 16 with some hard-fought wins over a pair of double-digit seeds. Neither Marist nor Hartford matched up with the talent of Georgia, but both had reasons to be confident. Marist gave Georgia a lot of trouble in a game in December 2004, so they weren’t intimidated. Hartford had just defeated a Temple team that had beaten Georgia earlier this season.

But Georgia’s talent won out in the end both times. In Tuesday’s game with Hartford, you could see the energy drain out of the underdogs as Georgia turned up the defense and went on a 15-0 run behind the play of Hardrick and Baker. It must have been demoralizing to see Georgia still blazing fast and creating turnovers while the fatigue of two tournament games caught up with Hartford.

Sherill Baker is doing her best to shed the “defensive specialist” label. She can’t shoot a sick 12-of-16 (most of which were jumpshots) and continue to have the improvement in her offense overlooked. Tasha Humphrey summed up what makes her different and special on one play in the second half – she drove from the perimeter (how many posts can even do that much?), did a spin move to create space in the lane, and instead of shooting an open mid-range shot, she in one motion came off the spin move to find Sherill Baker cutting to the basket for an easy catch-and-shoot layup. Call it vision, court-awareness, basketball smarts…it’s just there.

Tasha has piles of double-doubles now. If she ever records a triple-double, that third stat is likely to be assists. When some true centers and post players arrive in or return to the program, Humphrey could be a devastating distributor of the ball. Whether it’s from the high post to other interior players or an inside-out pass to the perimeter, she can sense where the open shot is and get the ball there.

Now in the Sweet 16 the Lady Dogs get into a situation where their talent advantage is no longer as great. UConn doesn’t have the otherworldly superstars of some of their powerhouse teams of the past decade, but they still have plenty of weapons. It’s ridiculous that people are talking about a “down” season for UConn when they have won 30 games and earned a #2 seed.

So while we congratulate them for getting this far and for some stellar performances in the first two games of the tournament, there have been some weak spots in those wins:

  • Slow starts on defense. Whether it was the adrenaline of the tournament or Georgia’s own lapses, both Marist and Hartford matched Georgia on offense for at least the first half. Shots were half-heartedly contested, and Hartford was even shooting well over 50% until Georgia turned up the defense in the second half. Though Tasha Humphrey had a tremendous game against Hartford in most areas, Landers had to call a first-half timeout to light into her about soft defense. I understand the limitations: Georgia’s depth situation prevents aggressive defense for 40 minutes. Exhaustion sets in, and foul trouble isn’t easy to overcome. Still, UConn likes to come out with guns blazing, and playing from behind is not a situation Georgia wants to face in this game. They need to set a defensive tone early and especially prevent Strother from catching fire.
  • Unforced turnovers. For the amazing control of her hands Sherill Baker shows on the defensive end, she too often loses control in the transition offense. One such turnover killed Georgia’s big run against Hartford and keyed a small rally by the Hawks that was fortunately short-lived. With points at a premium in this stage of the tournament, easy transition chances can’t be wasted. This was a problem in the SEC Tournament as well. Against Hartford, Georgia generally took much better care of the ball in the second half and gave Hartford very few chances to get out and run. Let’s hope that continues in the first half of the UConn game.
  • Contributions from everyone. The win over Hartford was a three-player show. Baker and Humphrey stood out, but Hardrick was also key in the win. Darrah had two points on 1-of-7 shooting. Kendrick didn’t score. Chambers was still in a bit of post-suspension hangover and had seven points, far below the level at which she was playing towards the end of the season.
  • Alexis Kendrick needs to play like a senior leader. Alexis played much better against Marist, coming close to a triple-double. As she struggled against Hartford though, her minutes increasingly went to Hardrick. Points have been at a premium for Kendrick lately, scoring 27 in the entire month of February. She didn’t score at all in Georgia’s final two regular season games. Of course Alexis brings so much to the team other than scoring. She doesn’t look for a lot of shots. Her defense is typically solid, she can rebound, and she runs the offense under control – just what you hope for in a point guard. But without much of a scoring threat from all but three positions opponents will have the opportunity to help on Georgia’s shooters, and Georgia’s execution is made more difficult. Kendrick is going to get some open looks, and whether or not she can provide the kind of contribution she had in the Marist game might have a big role in deciding how her Georgia career ends and her next career begins- the WNBA draft isn’t far away, and this is the biggest stage there is.

UConn can be beat, but they are still plenty good and as strong as any team Georgia has faced this year. A Georgia win will require much more steady play than they have shown so far in the tournament, and they’ll need stronger contributions on offense from some key starters. This game is a great opportunity for the Lady Dogs. With all of the good that has happened in this season of adversity, they still lack the big landmark win that would turn a nice season into a very memorable one. Getting that win over UConn in their own home state and advancing to within sight of the Final Four would be one of the biggest accomplishments in the history of this tradition-rich program.

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