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Post Lady Dogs’ turnaround season continues with big win over Tennessee

Friday January 22, 2010

Georgia football fans can relate. The gridiron Dawgs could start any season 7-0, but the impending trip to Jacksonville always hangs over any aspirations for a championship season. The Lady Dogs started this season 16-0, and there were enough wins over ranked and quality teams to know that the strong start was no fluke. But fans knew that the grind of the SEC season lay ahead, and that included a visit from Tennessee – a team Georgia hadn’t defeated since 2004.

Georgia’s rapid turnaround from a disappointing 2008-2009 season was a much-needed shot in the arm, but it was clear that Georgia wouldn’t be “back” until they made a move to challenge the teams that have dominated the SEC over the past five years. That list of teams starts of course with Tennessee.

So Georgia’s 53-50 win over Tennessee Thursday night was an important statement by a team that many hope will be the start of a return to national prominence for the program. The game was a clinic of defense – no surprise for a Georgia team that has leaned heavily on its defense this year. Tennessee, with a tall and athletic backcourt, was able to extend a frustrating 2-3 zone and control the glass. Georgia did a strong job of frustrating Tennessee’s guards (only a combined 14 points for the starting UT backcourt) and creating turnovers.

An energetic game that saw a 30-30 halftime score settled into a slugfest as both teams turned up the defense in the second half. Neither team led by more tha four points. With five minutes left in the game, Tennessee led 41-37. Neither team had scored in almost four minutes. Through 15 minutes of second half play, Tennessee had scored only 11 points, and Georgia had managed just 7. Ashley Houts finally knocked down a three-pointer with just under five minutes remaining, and that shot seemed to break the logjam on both ends. The teams traded baskets and even the lead until Houts fed a great pass to Porsha Phillips who found herself in perfect position to give Georgia the lead for good inside of a minute to play.

With the game on the line, Georgia turned to its defense. They smothered Angie Bjorklund, Tennessee’s sharpshooting guard, on each of UT’s final two possessions. On the first possession, Jasmine James was able to force a steal, and Georgia pushed the margin to a more comfortable three points. That three point lead allowed Georgia to focus on its perimeter defense, and again Bjorklund was unable to get off a shot that might’ve tied the game.

It’s a great feeling to be back on top of the SEC. A program that was in dire straits last spring has new life, and they’re relevant again – as relevant as any team can be this year in the hulking shadow of UConn. National media are talking about them again. “This is Georgia’s tradition,” coach Andy Landers said. “This is why I hope these players chose to come here.”

The win over Tennessee is great by itself. but it’s more important for the possibilities it creates for the team. They’re at the top of the SEC standings at this point in the year for the first time in several seasons. They know that they can get knocked off that perch in a single game – a blowout loss at Vanderbilt last week reminded them how quickly things can turn if the defense relents just a little.

Ole Miss is next up for Georgia, and the Rebels are right there with Georgia and Tennessee as the only SEC teams with one conference loss. They’ve already scored an upset of LSU and beat a good Mississippi State team last night, and they feature Bianca Thomas – the SEC’s leading scorer who just hung 42 points on LSU.

The crowd was exceptional for the Tennessee game and was as loud as Stegeman has seen – men’s or women’s – in several years. Hopefully some of those people liked what they saw and decide to come back – Sunday’s game with Ole Miss is at 1:00.

Tennessee postscripts…

– With the win, Georgia already has as many victories this year (18) as they did all of last year.

– Jasmine James had another cold night from the floor after hitting an early shot, but she came up big again at the end. She hit a three-pointer in overtime to bail out the team against Kentucky, and she dropped in another huge three-pointer with 93 seconds left against Tennessee.

– For some reason, halftime was only 15 minutes instead of the usual 20.

– Georgia substituted sparingly. Andy Landers only used two players from the bench for a total of seven minutes.

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