Lady Bulldogs’ Hempe finds right time to make a big entrance

The best game of sophomore Merritt Hempe’s career could not have come at a better time for Georgia.


Chris Starrs

The 6-foot-2 center from Fredericksburg, Va., posted the first double-double of her 51-game tenure on Thursday, scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds as the Lady Bulldogs recorded a 58-56 Southeastern Conference upset victory over No. 13 Kentucky at Stegeman Coliseum.

Hempe, who has averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in league play this winter, didn’t necessarily distinguish herself on the stat sheet in the first half against Kentucky, going 1 of 3 from the field with one made free throw. But in the final 20 minutes, she made 6 of 7 field goal attempts, including several key putbacks on offensive rebounds.

“There wasn’t an area where she didn’t play well,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said of Hempe’s play against the Wildcats. “Defensively she was very, very good, both in the man and in the zone. She rebounded the ball exceptionally well on both ends of the floor. She was able to convert some of the offensive rebounds into points and anytime you have a player go 7 of 10, they’ve had a terrific night there. She was very good in all parts.”

Although Hempe couldn’t pinpoint the difference between her play in the first and second half, Landers was quick to detail distinctions.

“The biggest thing in the second half was she actually received the ball better,” Landers, whose team (15-6, 3-5 in the SEC) faces Mississippi State (15-7, 2-5) at 3 p.m. today in Starkville. “She fumbled a couple of balls in the first half and let one or two get away from her and wasn’t as sure-handed. In the second half, her hands got better. The ball stuck and she was able to go forward and do what she wanted to do with it.”

A starter in 20 of Georgia’s 21 games, Hempe has tallied double-digit points in seven games and leads the Lady Bulldogs (15-6, 3-5 in the SEC) in several categories, including free throws made (42) and blocked shots (20).

Perhaps just as importantly against Kentucky, she also provided frequent encouragement to her teammates in the second half of what many considered a “must-win” game for Georgia, which opened conference play with an 0-4 record.

“I kept saying to the team, ‘This is our game. We have to win this game,’” she said. “Everyone fought so hard and wanted it so bad and everyone was really focused with the mind set of no matter what happens, this is our game and we need this game.”

“That’s the best I’ve seen her play all year,” senior point guard Khaalidah Miller said of Hempe. “She understood that we needed her to play big. (Landers) kept stressing how Kentucky’s post players rebound the ball a lot and how our post players had to do the same and how we had to hit some shots inside. She had a great shooting night and made some crucial shots in some clutch moments, and that’s what we needed her to do.”

Landers and Hempe concur that they’d both like to see something resembling double-double play from her every night.

“Consistency has been something I’ve struggled with, especially this season,” Hempe said. “I’m just trying to play hard every possession. I just want to do whatever I can to help the team. If it means scoring, I’ll try to score. If it’s assists, it’s assists — whatever I need to do to help.”

“That’s something you go through with players when they’re developing,” Landers added. “Becoming a veteran means that you’ve become consistent at some acceptable level. Young players, when they develop, often (range) from good to somewhere else. It’s a process that our whole team is enduring, or experiencing, now.”

In addition to climbing out of the SEC hole they dug for themselves, today’s game has added significance for the Lady Bulldogs as they hope to erase the memory of last year’s 50-38 loss to Mississippi State, a game widely acknowledged to be nadir of Georgia’s 2012-13 season.

“It was the worst game we played last year,” Landers said. “I’ve scratched a hole in the side of my head trying to figure that out. We took a veteran basketball team to Starkville and we don’t perform and it started with decision-making. …And it wasn’t a one-person deal. It was across the board. When something like that happens, you can’t explain it.”

“I remember that game,” Hempe added. “We were kind of lagging in that game and I didn’t know what was going on. Hopefully, this year we’ll be more prepared and more ready to go, especially because we haven’t had the best season. We won a big game (against Kentucky), so we need to continue to build on that.”

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