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Post Lady Dogs keep winning…and here comes Humphrey

Tuesday November 28, 2006

When news came down a few months ago that Tasha Humphrey would be suspended for the Lady Dogs’ first six games, "4-2" immediately popped into my head. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Georgia would start the season without its leading scorer, its best rebounder, and its swagger. It also meant that Georgia would start the season with seven players – including two who are still coming back from season-ending ACL injuries last year, one who had offseason wrist surgery, and two true freshmen. The first six games would include two opponents ranked among the preseason top 11 nationally.

No one would have come down too hard on Georgia for losing to Stanford and/or Rutgers with a seven player rotation and minus Humphrey. They would have been patted on the head for a nice effort and told that it would be OK once Tasha returned. But this is the team that put together a Sweet 16 run after losing four post players a season ago. Playing without Tasha was just another problem to solve, and its a good thing that they had much higher expectations for themselves than we did. A 5-0, and likely 6-0, start to this season didn’t seem likely, but here we are. It hasn’t been easy of course. Four of the six games, including Davidson and Georgia Southern, were anyone’s games. Georgia had dropped games like those in recent years.

Sunday’s game against Stanford went a lot like the opener with Rutgers and several games last season. Much has been made of Georgia’s second-half collapses last year, but so far this season they’ve been able to hold off runs by some quality opponents and finish strong. Stanford got star Candace Wiggins heated up and stormed back and even had a couple of chances at the foul line to take the lead. Big plays down the stretch came from Ashley Houts – Houts had missed several free throws earlier in the game but twice hit a pair of free throws with the Lady Dogs hanging on to a one-point lead. Despite Stanford getting effective inside-outside production from Wiggins and Brooke Smith, not many other Cardinal players were able to be factors. Georgia’s contributions came from all seven players – everything from Chambers’ scoring to Rowsey’s career-high rebound total – and that was the difference. The penetration by Hardrick and Darrah opened up the inside and provided a nice complement to the outside game of Chambers. I’m telling you – if Cori Chambers drives to the baseline and squares up, just put two points on the board.

With these games behind us, the next big challenge on the schedule is this weekend at Georgia Tech. The Lady Dogs lost to Tech two years ago in Atlanta, and it was a close win for Georgia last year at home. Tech isn’t ranked, but it’s obvious that they place a lot of importance on this intrastate rivalry as they are trying to compete with Georgia for recruits and attention. Georgia needs to build on their early success this year and firmly reestablish control of this series.

The good news now is that after a likely win over Memphis this Wednesday, Tasha Humphrey will return for the Tech game. Georgia could also add anywhere from one to three players to the court before the end of the season. Georgia volleyball player Maria Taylor has already begun practicing with the team. She’s naturally lost right now but could give key minutes at the forward spot. Sophomore wing Danielle Taylor is still sorting out some offseason legal issues. Freshman guard Jaleesa Rhoden injured her knee last spring playing with the Canadian national team and might be in the position in a month to assess whether she wants to play this year or redshirt.

The changes will bring a different set of challenges for Coach Landers and the players. Georgia’s offense has been primarily focused on the wings and particularly Cori Chambers. Posts Rebecca Rowsey and Angel Robinson have made a big difference just by their presence on defense and in rebounding, but their roles on offense have been more opportunistic than strategic, at least in terms of point production. That will change when Humphrey is in the game. Her abilities will present lots of options. The team can show a bigger look with Humphrey at the 4 and Darrah sliding over to the wing. Darrah’s year playing down low will give her a nice physical advantage over most wings, and her size and speed are already advantages. A dynamic player like Humphrey also means Georgia can run high-low plays with other posts or play inside-out games with the wings. Humphrey’s versatility and ability to draw defenders might even mean that she is on the outside feeding the ball inside.

Options and versatility are almost always good things, but there are pitfalls. Chemistry between the five on the court has gone a long way in the first five games, and some combinations going forward will be more effective than others. It will be interesting to see in the Georgia Tech game – a very close game in the past couple of years – how the team chemistry adjusts to the significant addition of Humphrey. Tech doesn’t have a lot of size, but they have a fleet of quick guards who can take advantage of sloppy play. You also have a special weapon in Chambers, and it’s important that she not disappear once Humphrey gets going.

A concern that has emerged is at point guard. Ashley Houts will be fine, but she will certainly be the focus of defensive pressure. After a spectacular opening game, Houts has been up and down. It’s not that she’s a liability or unskilled; she’s just a true freshman and is still learning the college game. The team’s assist-to-turnover ratio is under the benchmark of 1.0 (74/83). Teams will try to disrupt Houts before the team can get into its offense and get the ball to Humphrey or Chambers. Hardrick is more experienced and can also bring the ball up but has been notoriously wild at times. Humphrey’s return will help there as well – she (along with Darrah) is more than capable of getting the ball up the court.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself – they could easily have a losing record at this point and could definitely get caught on a night where they sleepwalk into a game. If they can get past Tech this weekend, they should be considered even money to head into the SEC schedule undefeated.

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