The Lady Dogs’ first two road trips after the Christmas break didn’t go well. They lost their first game of the year in a sluggish effort at Illinois, and then they saw a close game deteriorate in the second half at Tennessee. After starting 12-0, the team had lost two of three games.
The team had some opportunities to recover over the past week, and they cashed in with a pair of wins in games that featured very different styles. Thursday’s game at Alabama, an 95-83 win, was a shootout. About the only way either team could stop the other was by stealing the ball; the teams combined for 19 steals. But Georgia shot 56%, Alabama shot 64% from outside, and both teams put up some of their highest point totals of the season. It was close at halftime, but Georgia pulled away to lead by as many as 19. Five Georgia players scored in double-figures.
Sunday’s home game against South Carolina was the complete opposite. The Lady Dogs won a 42-40 grinder against South Carolina, one of the best defensive teams in the nation. The South Carolina defense and its on-ball pressure was an especially strong test for Georgia’s guards, and the visitors came away with 13 steals. But it also meant a stiff test for Georgia’s own defense. With things going slowly on offense, a Georgia defense that gave up 83 points to Alabama couldn’t afford another high number.
South Carolina did a few things to help Georgia out. The Gamecocks were a woeful 0-for-11 from outside and only shot 8-for-16 from the foul line. Free throws aside, South Carolina’s open looks from outside were the byproduct of an effective Georgia zone defense. South Carolina’s strength is in driving to the basket. Georgia’s zone helped to limit this penetration, and the visitors shot only 34%. South Carolina did have one advantage, and that was toughness inside. The Gamecocks pulled down 12 offensive boards and out-rebounded Georgia 37-28. This rebounding edge helped South Carolina overcome their poor shooting: 10 of South Carolina’s 40 points were second-chance baskets.
This was a close defensive battle typical of what we’ve come to expect against Dawn Staley’s South Carolina teams. Neither team led by more than 6, and both teams made key plays on both ends of the court when it seemed that one side might look to make a run. Georgia’s guards usually aren’t shy about shooting, but the South Carolina defense kept the Georgia backcourt to no more than 8 attempts from any one player. The Lady Dogs did get some good looks, but they too struggled from outside, hitting only one of nine attempts from behind the arc.
Two players accounted for nearly half the points in the game. South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch was tough to stop with 19 points on efficient 8-for-10 shooting. Georgia had an answer on their frontcourt. Jasmine Hassell also poured in 19 points, and she scored Georgia’s final three points to help seal the win. Hassell’s solid game came on the heels of a 21 point, 7 rebound effort at Alabama. Those two game earned her SEC Player of the Week honors, and she did it all with a broken nose suffered during the Alabama game.
Hassell’s importance to the team has been clear over the past month. She was key in the Alabama and South Carolina games, but there have been times when that production hasn’t been there – or when teammates have struggled to get the ball inside. In the loss at Tennessee, Hassell only scored 4 points, but she only attempted 4 shots. Even in a solid win over Missouri to open SEC play, Hassell got 3 points on 4 attempts. I understand that sometimes defenses make it a point to keep the ball from Georgia’s only true post player, but more consistent output from that spot has to be a key for the team going forward. Good things happen when she gets the ball inside.
Now the focus turns to Anne Marie Armstrong. Georgia’s other senior forward has been recovering from a foot injury since before the season. The injury has had a glaring impact on Armstrong’s scoring. She was held out of the Alabama game to help her recovery, but her four games since Christmas haven’t been successful. She’s shooting just 3-for-28 during that stretch, and there were three games in which she didn’t make a shot. You need her in the game because as an intelligent and experienced senior, she finds other ways to contribute. Her defense is solid, she contributed two steals against South Carolina, and she led the team with 4 assists. You just hope that the ankle can come back to a point where Armstrong is again an inside-outside scoring threat.
Georgia has an interesting week coming up with another away/home pair of games. The long-ish trip to Arkansas, especially on a weekday, is never pleasant. It doesn’t help that Arkansas is a decent team this year. Georgia returns home on Sunday to welcome Texas A&M to the SEC. While most of the state will be glued to the Falcons, this will be the second straight Sunday Top 20 game at Stegeman Coliseum. A&M’s football program is the toast of College Station now, but this basketball team has been one of the strongest Aggie programs over the past couple of years. They reached the national title game two years ago and returned to the Sweet 16 a year ago. They’re back in the top 20 this year. Though they’ve lost five games, all five losses have been to top 10 teams, and only the loss to UConn wasn’t close. A&M coach Gary Blair, through his former position at Arkansas, is no stranger to Athens. Georgia’s upperclassmen were there for a humiliating loss when these teams last met in the 2011 Sweet 16, and hopefully that bitter taste will be on their minds.