Lady Bulldogs fighting late-game slumps despite use of bench players

Depth has been one of Georgia’s strengths this season.

AJ Reynolds/Staff
Georgia forward Tamika Willis (23) and guard Erika Ford (31) fight for a loose ball with Alabama defenders during a game on Thursday at Stegeman Coliseum.

The Lady Bulldogs have more players who can pace themselves harder through the course of a game than anytime in the last several years.

So, Georgia’s habit of late fades is a bewildering problem with an elusive solution.

“It’s something that I’ve worried about all year,” Georgia guard Erika Ford said. “It seems like we can come out and play really well the first half, and in the second half we don’t compete as well as we should. Finishing games, we haven’t been really great at that this year, and it’s one of those things coach (Andy Landers) talks about all the time. It’s one of those things that can hurt us, and we need to fix that.”

Georgia let a 14-point lead with 5:50 left dwindle down to four with 2:05 left on Thursday against Alabama. Georgia eventually won 65-59. Last Sunday, Georgia led Florida by 31 with 7:29 left but won by 17 as the reserves played most of the late minutes.

“It disappoints me,” Landers said. “It’s hard to explain. In the Florida game, it was a couple of freshmen inbounding the ball, and I get all that. But last night when we went up by 14, I thought we had a chance to go up by 24 and the opposite happened.

“It’s hard to explain. It is what it is. I can’t explain it. But it should not be fatigue. Last night (Thursday) we made some decisions that I wish we hadn’t made. But why we did that, I can’t figure out.”

No. 13 Georgia (18-3, 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference) travels to No. 8 Kentucky (19-2, 7-1) for a 2 p.m. tipoff today at Lexington’s Memorial Coliseum. This is a critical game for Georgia to stay in the hunt for the SEC regular-season title.

When Kentucky and Georgia met last season, Georgia’s already-thin bench had taken a big hit when Jasmine James was sidelined with a knee injury. All five Georgia starters played at least 35 minutes, including Anne Marie Armstrong, who stayed on the court with four fouls most of the second half. Kentucky won 69-64 in Stegeman Coliseum and Georgia used only two substitutes, who played a total of nine minutes.

“We’re a lot different this year team-wise,” Ford said. “We’ve got a lot more depth, so we can substitute five-in, five-out when we need to. There’s a lot more chances for breaks if we need it, so we can play harder when we’re out there. It’s a great feeling as a player to know you’ve got teammates who can come off of the bench and play well. It gives you a chance to go hard when you’re in, give everything you have and there should be no reason to hold anything back.”

Most of Georgia’s current depth consists of freshmen who have never played in a league like the SEC before. The calendar has just turned to February, when freshmen often hit a wall as mental and physical fatigue take a toll.

“We have a different style of play,” James said. “We’ve kind of adopted a transition style and a running style, and Kentucky is an up-and-down team as well. I feel like it’s going to be a fast-paced game, a game of possessions and a game that will take a lot of focus and a lot of execution and a lot of communication. I’m really looking forward to it because I feel like we have a lot of good matchups with Kentucky. They’re a great team, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much we’ve improved over the past couple of weeks.”

Despite the greater depth, the problem of late-game fades has persisted into February.

“It doesn’t really surprise me because it’s something we’ve struggled with all year long,” James said. “It’s definitely something we’re trying to work on and something we’re aware of. We can play a great first half but have a flat second half and let teams back into the game. It’s something we’re trying to correct and here it is, getting toward the end of the season and we’re still trying to correct.”

But Thursday’s late swoon against Alabama came when Georgia had its veterans on the floor and nearly all of them are multi-year starters or major contributors.

“There’s a lack of focus and a lack of execution,” James said. “Those last two-to-four minutes we’ve had some crucial turnovers and some slips-ups on the defensive end that have allowed other teams to score and break into that lead. I feel like as we go on through the season, one of the things we’re going to have to focus on in those final stages is really coming together. We need to understand and really buckle down and take care of business.”

 

A CLOSER LOOK

No. 13 GEORGIA AT No. 8 KENTUCKY

When: 2 p.m.
Where: Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky.
Radio: WRFC 960-AM.
TV: SEC Network/Peachtree TV
Records: Georgia is 18-3, 6-2 in the SEC; Kentucky is 19-2, 7-1.
Rankings: Georgia is No. 13, Kentucky is No. 8.
Probable starting lineups:
Kentucky: G Jennifer O’Neill (So., 5-6, 9.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg); G Bria Goss (So., 5-10, 9.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg); G A’dia Mathies (Sr., 5-9, 15.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Samarie Walker (Jr., 6-1, 9.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg); C DeNesha Stallworth (Jr., 6-3, 13.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg).
Georgia: G Jasmine James (Sr., 5-9, 11.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Tiaria Griffin (Fr., 5-7, 7.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Shacobia Barbee (Fr., 5-10, 6.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg); F Anne Marie Armstrong (Sr., 6-3, 7.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg); F Jasmine Hassell (Sr., 6-2, 12.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
Series record: Georgia leads 34-13, including 21-8 in Lexington.
Last meeting: Kentucky beat Georgia 69-64 last season in Athens.
Season at a glance: Georgia came off of its bye week and beat Florida 69-52 on Sunday and Alabama 65-59 on Thursday. Kentucky comes off of its conference bye after beating LSU 73-60 last Sunday.
Noteworthy: Georgia started three freshmen against Alabama — Tiaria Griffin, Shacobia Barbee and Merritt Hempe. It was the first time since 2006 that Georgia has started three freshmen. … Georgia forward Krista Donald was held out of the Alabama game because of chronic swelling in her left knee. She should be available against Kentucky. … The last time Georgia played Kentucky, Jasmine James was out with an injured knee and Georgia seven players. The five starters all played at least 35 minutes, including Anne Marie Armstrong who played most of the second half with four fouls. … Kentucky and Georgia were the preseason picks to finish first and second respectively in the SEC. Kentucky is currently tied with Texas A&M for second, one game behind Tennessee. Georgia is tied with South Carolina for fourth, two games behind Tennessee. … Kentucky has won a school-record 34 straight home games. It is the longest current home winning streak in the nation behind Baylor’s 50. … Kentucky backup center Azia Bishop had a career-high 17 points against LSU. … Kentucky guard A’dia Mathies has scored in double figures 12 straight games.
—Roger Clarkson

 

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