The best game of sophomore Merritt Hempe‚Äôs career could not have come at a better time for Georgia.
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‚Äôt 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.
‚ÄúThere wasn‚Äôt an area where she didn‚Äôt play well,‚Äù Georgia coach Andy Landers said of Hempe‚Äôs play against the Wildcats. ‚ÄúDefensively 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‚Äôve had a terrific night there. She was very good in all parts.‚Äù
Although Hempe couldn‚Äôt pinpoint the difference between her play in the first and second half, Landers was quick to detail distinctions.
‚ÄúThe biggest thing in the second half was she actually received the ball better,‚Äù Landers, whose team (15-6, 3-5 in the SEC) faces Mississippi State (15-7, 2-5) at 3 p.m. today in Starkville. ‚ÄúShe fumbled a couple of balls in the first half and let one or two get away from her and wasn‚Äôt 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.‚Äù
A starter in 20 of Georgia‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúmust-win‚Äù game for Georgia, which opened conference play with an 0-4 record.
‚ÄúI kept saying to the team, ‚ÄòThis is our game. We have to win this game,‚Äô‚Äù she said. ‚ÄúEveryone 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.‚Äù
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the best I‚Äôve seen her play all year,‚Äù senior point guard Khaalidah Miller said of Hempe. ‚ÄúShe understood that we needed her to play big. (Landers) kept stressing how Kentucky‚Äôs 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‚Äôs what we needed her to do.‚Äù
Landers and Hempe concur that they‚Äôd both like to see something resembling double-double play from her every night.
‚ÄúConsistency has been something I‚Äôve struggled with, especially this season,‚Äù Hempe said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm just trying to play hard every possession. I just want to do whatever I can to help the team. If it means scoring, I‚Äôll try to score. If it‚Äôs assists, it‚Äôs assists ‚Äî whatever I need to do to help.‚Äù
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs something you go through with players when they‚Äôre developing,‚Äù Landers added. ‚ÄúBecoming a veteran means that you‚Äôve become consistent at some acceptable level. Young players, when they develop, often (range) from good to somewhere else. It‚Äôs a process that our whole team is enduring, or experiencing, now.‚Äù
In addition to climbing out of the SEC hole they dug for themselves, today‚Äôs game has added significance for the Lady Bulldogs as they hope to erase the memory of last year‚Äôs 50-38 loss to Mississippi State, a game widely acknowledged to be nadir of Georgia‚Äôs 2012-13 season.
‚ÄúIt was the worst game we played last year,‚Äù Landers said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve 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‚Äôt perform and it started with decision-making. ‚Ä¶And it wasn‚Äôt a one-person deal. It was across the board. When something like that happens, you can‚Äôt explain it.‚Äù
‚ÄúI remember that game,‚Äù Hempe added. ‚ÄúWe were kind of lagging in that game and I didn‚Äôt know what was going on. Hopefully, this year we‚Äôll be more prepared and more ready to go, especially because we haven‚Äôt had the best season. We won a big game (against Kentucky), so we need to continue to build on that.‚Äù