Freshman Hempe battles through foot injury to gain, keep playing time

Merritt Hempe has needed to work around a painful foot injury most of the season.

Richard Hamm/Staff
Georgia forward Merritt Hempe, left, defends against Missouri guard Lianna Doty (1) during a game on Jan. 3 at Stegeman Coliseum.

But the freshman from Fredericksburg, Va., has carved out a blue-collar role in Georgia’s front court.

“When I first got here, I wanted to come in and make an impact as a freshman,” Hempe said. “But I hurt my foot and had to sit out. Now, I’m kind of learning how to play with it. I want to try to play my role as more of a rebounder and defender and then see what I can do from there.”

No. 13-ranked Georgia (17-3, 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference) hosts Alabama (12-8, 2-5) at 7 p.m. today at Stegeman Coliseum. Georgia has already beaten Alabama 95-83 this season in Tuscaloosa. Georgia comes off of a 69-52 win against rival Florida on Sunday.

“Everything’s such a new experience and it’s been great so far,” Hempe said. “We’ve had a few slips down the road that we didn’t necessarily expect. But I think we’re coming back as a team and trying to fix those little things up.”

Hempe, a 6-foot-2 forward, has played both front line positions. She averages 4.3 points and 3.8 rebounds in 14.0 minutes a game. She is second on the team with 11 blocks behind Anne Marie Armstrong’s 16.

“She’s a true competitor. She doesn’t allow anything to get her out of focus,” Georgia forward Krista Donald said. “She just competes, competes and competes. She’s very versatile. She’s like a mini-Anne Marie but in a different package. It’s really tough to shoot over her because she’s so tall. She’s very lengthy.”

Hempe made three starts in the early going but a foot injury benched her for four games, including SEC encounters at Alabama and Arkansas. The chronic foot bruise has required close management from Georgia’s training staff, so Hempe’s practice and playing time has been limited since the holidays.

“I think she’s our best rebounder and it’s unfortunate that she can’t play more because that’s an area we need to get better in,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “You go all the way back to the summer and she was in the gym as much as anybody. She was on track to have a really, really good freshman year. Then the foot popped up. It’s very difficult for any player to be out of action and have the rhythm and confidence and consistency that they need to compete. It’s almost impossible for a freshman because they’re still learning everything.”

Hempe played only two minutes against Texas A&M on Jan. 20 before the conference bye. Hempe practiced more during the bye week than she had since Christmas and responded with 16 minutes against Florida on Sunday.

“I’m just really trying rebound and box out which is something I haven’t really had to do in the past,” Hempe said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. This is completely different level. There’s so much scouting and planning. You really have to know your stuff and know who you’re playing and what they want to do every single game. That’s the biggest transition.”

Before Hempe was injured, she had nine-rebound games against South Carolina State and New Mexico. She also had three-blocked shot games against Presbyterian and Georgia Tech and scored in double figures against Presbyterian (11) and St. Bonaventure (10).

“If her foot holds up as well as it has, going forward, she’s getting enough reps to get back into the groove,” Landers said. “She needs to get the confidence she needs to get more comfortable with what we’re doing. Had she not been hurt, I wonder whether or not if she’d be starting right now. She rebounds it. She can stretch the defense with the 3-point play. She’s very good inside. She’s very good at mid-range. But she’s got to move her feet. She’s got to quit fouling. She’s got to understand that she can’t block shots the way she did in high school.”

A CLOSER LOOK

Alabama at Georgia

When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Stegeman Coliseum.

Radio: WRFC 960-AM.

TV: Premium portion of georgiadogs.com.

Records: Georgia is 17-3, 5-2 in the SEC; Alabama is 12-8, 2-5.

Rankings: Georgia is No. 13, Alabama is unranked.

Probable starting lineups:

Alabama: G Daisha Simmons (So., 5-10, 12.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg); G Jasmine Robinson (Jr., 5-7, 10.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg); G Shafontaye Myers (Jr., 5-9, 12.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg); G Meghan Perkins (Sr., 5-11, 9.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg); F Kaneisha Horn (So., 6-1, 8.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

Georgia: G Jasmine James (Sr., 5-9, 11.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Tiaria Griffin (Fr., 5-7, 7.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Shacobia Barbee (Fr., 5-10, 6.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg); F Anne Marie Armstrong (Sr., 6-3, 6.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Jasmine Hassell (Sr., 6-2, 12.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg).

Series record: Georgia leads 35-9, including 15-3 in Athens.

Last meeting: Georgia beat Alabama 95-83 on Jan. 10 in Tuscaloosa.

Season at a glance: Georgia came off of its bye week and beat Florida 69-52 on Sunday. Alabama has lost two of its last three and lost 67-58 on Sunday at home against Vanderbilt.

Noteworthy: Georgia scored a season high 95 points against Alabama in the last meeting. Georgia also allowed a season-high 83 points against the Crimson Tide. … Anne Marie Armstrong missed the Alabama game on Jan. 10 with a sprained ankle. … Krista Donald made her first start of the season and scored a season-high 11 points against Florida. … Georgia’s Jasmine James and Alabama’s Jasmine Robinson are both from Memphis, Tenn. … Georgia needs one more win to become the 10th program in NCAA history with at least 805 victories. … Georgia associate head coach Joni Crenshaw played at Alabama and was the team captain 2000-01.. Georgia assistant coach Robert Mosley coached Alabama forward Kaneisha Horn at Birmingham Ramsey High School. He was an assistant at Alabama from 2010-12. … Georgia has won 22 straight against the Crimson Tide. Alabama is tied for third in the SEC in steals at 12.2 a game. … Alabama leads the SEC in 3-point defense at 23.7 percent.

— Roger Clarkson

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