As the regular season winds down, Georgia faces perhaps the sternest challenge tonight it has seen all year long.
Georgia senior guard Khaalidah Miller is the Lady Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer at 11 points per game. Miller has led the team in scoring in three contests this season.
Needing to win their last two games to finish at .500 in the Southeastern Conference, the Lady Bulldogs (18-9, 6-8 SEC) travel to Columbia, S.C., to face No. 4 South Carolina (25-2, 13-1), which is on a nine-game winning streak and has yet to lose at home this year.
In a season of tough games, this one could be the toughest of all. But Georgia has no plans to back down or back off.
“It very well could our toughest game,” sophomore center Merritt Hempe said. “We’ve been through so much this season that I think it can make us ready for this game. They’re such a tough team and they’re so physical. We have to be ready for everything.”
“I don’t think we’re intimidated,” junior forward Krista Donald added. “We shouldn’t be intimidated because they’re in our conference and our conference has a lot of parity. We’re liable to play big in big games.”
Georgia coach Andy Landers didn’t opine that South Carolina would present the most rigorous challenge yet to date to his team, but he did offer that the Gamecocks were the SEC’s best in 2014.
“I think this is the most talented team, the best team in our conference,” Landers, who is 32-6 in his career against South Carolina, said. “They’re excellent at every position and they’re deep at every position. I’m not sure we’ve played a team that had five players that can hurt you quite the way South Carolina can. … Each individual player that they have, from our defensive standpoint, is going to scream for a little bit of help, yet there’s not anyone you can cheat off of. So they’re going to make you pay and that’s the mark of a really good, balanced team.”
Although the Gamecocks are led in scoring by 5-foot-9 guard Tiffany Mitchell (15.3 ppg) and 6-0 forward Aleighsa Welch (14.1 ppg), they have a sizeable advantage over Georgia in the form of centers Alaina Coates (12.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Elem Ibian (9.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.6 blocks per game), both of whom stand 6-4.
With only four players on the roster taller than 6-0 (and with only two of those players seeing extensive court time), the Lady Bulldogs can ill afford to tax what little inside depth they have with foul trouble.
“This is a game where defensively we have to be very good,” Landers said. “We cannot foul and limit our rotation because we need all the bigs we have. (South Carolina) can be 6-4, 6-4 (inside) and talented. It’s a challenge for us defensively to keep the score in reach of our offense. You don’t want to fail defensively, (to) allow the other team to put a big number on the board that you’re trying to match.”
The Gamecocks have defeated their opponents by an average of 20.5 points per game this season and are one of the league’s most prolific scoring teams, averaging nearly 75 points an outing. The Lady Bulldogs have averaged 67.5 points per game (11th in the SEC), but have one of the league’s stingiest defenses, giving up but 58.8 points a night.
“They’re so physical and they get after it,” Hempe said. “They play so hard. From what I’ve seen, they go hard every possession and they work really well together as a unit.”
Although a good showing in next week’s SEC tournament and a potential run in the NCAA tournament could turn things around, there’s not much question this has been a disappointing season for the Lady Bulldogs, even though they returned only one senior (Khaalidah Miller) and one full-time starter (Shacobia Barbee).
After starting the conference season at 0-4 for the first time, it seemed that every time Georgia took a step forward, it would get knocked a step back. Last week was a good illustration as the Lady Bulldogs beat then-No. 19 LSU on Thursday, only to be bested by Auburn on Sunday. In the face of many setbacks, however, team members have kept a stiff upper lip and have yet to hang their heads.
“We’ve got to shake (Sunday) off and be prepared to play,” Miller said. “We still have two regular-season games and the SEC tournament, so we have to move on. We have to be encouraging for each other, understanding that we still have more games to play and understanding that we can’t hold our heads down too long because we still have to compete.”
GEORGIA AT NO. 4 SOUTH CAROLINA
When/where: 7 p.m. today/Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.
TV/radio: None/ The Ref 960-AM and 103.7-FM Gainesville
Records: Georgia is 18-9 overall and 6-8 in the Southeastern Conference; South Carolina is 25-2 and 13-1 in the SEC.