Georgia has used aggressive, physical defense to advance to the Sweet 16 two years in a row.
Unfortunately for the Lady Bulldogs, the dreadful field-goal shooting that plagued the team last year cropped up at the worst times, especially in the season-ending loss to Texas A&M on Sunday.
Georgia finished 2010-11 with a 23-11 record, tied for third in the Southeastern Conference’s regular season at 10-6, made the SEC Tournament semifinals and was one of the last 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament.
Georgia ended in a similar place as last season, but it looked much different. The Lady Bulldogs’ field-goal shooting and scoring improved. They played their best at a fast tempo, yet retained most of their defensive edge. Porsha Phillips and Jasmine James became difference-makers on both ends of the court.
Georgia made necessary improvements on offense. Its shooting percentage jumped from 38.3 percent in 2010 to 40.1 percent in 2011. Scoring went up from 62.5 points to 63.6 a game. But the Lady Bulldogs’ shooting confidence was fragile and they were only a couple of blown layups away from sinking into a game-long funk.
Georgia has solidified its position among the top 16 programs in the country, but it needs to shoot consistently to climb higher.
The biggest question for the Lady Bulldogs going into the season was how its young players would fare. Of the 10 players on the roster, eight were either freshmen or sophomores – but one of those sophomores was James.
Landers opened the point guard position after four-year starter Ashley Houts graduated last May and James almost immediately closed it. She led the team in scoring (12.3 points per game), assists (118) and steals (61) despite playing most of the conference season with a sprained shooting wrist. James’ putback to beat Florida State in the Auburn subregional landed her on nationwide highlight reels.
Freshman Khaalidah Miller filled an outside scoring need and was not shy about launching shots. She averaged 9.1 points a game and was the team’s most effective 3-point shooter at 32.5 percent.
Sophomore forwards Jasmine Hassell and Tamika Willis jelled into a solid low-post rotation, despite being undersized much of the time. Hassell is Georgia’s most accomplished interior scorer and her rebounding improved as the season progressed. Willis, who played sparingly as a freshman, supplied rebounding and an interior defensive presence.
Sophomore Anne Marie Armstrong became Georgia’s most versatile athlete who played four of the five positions at different times this season. Freshman Ronika Ransford played well in spurts before her late-season academic suspension. Ransford returned to the team in time for the NCAA Tournament and played against Texas A&M.
Georgia had only 10 players on the roster and two of those, sophomore forward Ebony Jones and freshman forward Arieal Johnson played little as the season progressed. Luckily for Landers, junior Meredith Mitchell and Armstrong could fill in at multiple places, so an eight-person rotation didn’t seem so short, even with James fighting through her injury.
Ransford’s suspension wiped out all the backcourt depth and showed how short that rotation really was. Georgia’s lack of reserve guards played a role in losing four of its last five games going into the NCAA Tournament.
Georgia didn’t have much in the way of numbers, and that will wear a team down over the course of 30 games. Willis and Miller became more erratic in their first seasons as major contributors. The quick-paced offense also slowed noticeably as the starters’ minutes piled up. When the offensive pace slowed, the shooting fell to a season-low 25-percent and 39 points against Texas A&M.
Landers only loses one senior, but it’s going almost impossible to replace Phillips. She led the SEC in rebounding (10.7 a game) and free-throw shooting (80.7 percent) and led Georgia with 50 blocked shots.
Phillips’ lanky 6-foot-2 frame and fast feet keyed Georgia’s defense the last two seasons. Despite being outsized inside, she became the first Lady Bulldog to average double-figure points (10.8 a game) and rebounds (10.7) since Katrina McClain in 1987.
Armstrong is the only returning regular who has the physical tools that resemble Phillips’. Armstrong is a more versatile shooter, but lacks Phillips’ footspeed and interior strength. So the nature of that position might change when the Lady Bulldogs reconvene before next season.
Mitchell will be Georgia’s only senior, but the team will have much more experience next season.
James will be in her third season, but she has played four seasons’ worth of high-pressure minutes. Rising juniors Hassell, Armstrong and Willis have taken major steps forward in their development every year and should expand their roles even more. Now that she knows what to expect at the end of a grueling season, Miller’s consistency should hold up better. Ransford should be more educated in the off-court responsibilities of a Georgia basketball player.
The future looks bright for the Lady Bulldogs. Some better shooting and more depth could take them deeper than three rounds into the NCAA Tournament bracket.
• Roger Clarkson is a sports writer for the Banner-Herald. Phone: 706-208-2237.