Lady Bulldogs open NCAA tournament against unfamiliar foe in St. Joseph’s

Andy Landers admitted that there was a time this season when he wasn’t sure his Lady Bulldogs would be invited to the program’s 20th consecutive NCAA tournament.

AJ Reynolds/Staff, @ajreynoldsphoto
Georgia guard/forward Shacobia Barbee (20) breaks after stealing the ball from South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell (25) during the second half of a third round Southeastern Conference Tournament game in Duluth, Ga., Friday, March 7, 2014. South Carolina won 67-48.

Fortunately for the Georgia women’s basketball coach and his charges, those uncertain times passed rather quickly.

“We started off in the conference 0-4 and we knew that wasn’t going to get us in,” said Landers, whose No. 8-seeded Lady Bulldogs (20-11) will face ninth seed St. Joseph’s (22-9) at 5:30 p.m. today in a first-round NCAA tourney game in Storrs, Conn. The winner will face the UConn/Prairie View winner on Tuesday.

“From that point on, we had to do better and we did. As we got toward the middle of February, we started to believe again that we had an excellent chance. And as we finished the season and the SEC tournament, there was a reason to feel confident with the idea we would be in.”

The two teams have never played, but there are some interesting similarities between Georgia and St. Joseph’s.

The Lady Bulldogs ended the regular season having won three of their last five games, and scored a victory over Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament before being beaten handily by South Carolina (a No. 1 seed playing in Seattle) in the quarterfinals. The Hawks likewise won three of their last five games and played twice in the Atlantic 10 tournament, falling in overtime to George Washington in the quarterfinals.

Another characteristic of both teams is a noticeable lack of height. Georgia’s primary post weapon is 6-foot-2 sophomore Merritt Hempe and St. Joseph’s counters with 6-2 junior Ashley Robinson, whose averaging 13 points a game. Landers said he doesn’t consider the height situation to be a hindrance or an edge.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not a disadvantage, and that‚Äôs a good thing,‚Äù Landers, who has coached Georgia to five Sweet 16s and five Final Fours, said. ‚ÄúSometimes when you play someone and it goes both ways, they may have smaller post players than you have that create problems because they are smaller and more guard-like. …This is a basketball team that mirrors us in terms of size. There shouldn‚Äôt be any disadvantage.‚Äù

Junior forward Erika Ford welcomes the idea of not tussling with taller players for rebounds, but said the balance of the game still boils down to effort.

“It’s always tough when you’re playing against kids who are 6-5 and 6-6,” Ford, who is averaging 11.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, said. “It helps to be the same height, but if we don’t go get the rebound or jump to go get it, it won’t have a good outcome.”

Landers appreciates consistency and assents that this year’s team often trends toward the opposite effect. He still had several days to gather and disseminate the scouting report when he said he wasn’t sure if he was more worried about St. Joseph’s or Georgia.

“It’s 50/50. Anytime you have a young team or an inexperienced team in this environment, you’re concerned about them,” said Landers, who pointed out that the Hawks ran offensive sets similar to Vanderbilt’s and no one else’s. “When you have a team that may have been a little inconsistent in the last couple of games, it’s concerning. But I’m also concerned that St. Joseph’s plays a different style than most of the people we guard in the Southeastern Conference. That’s going to present some challenges.”

Sophomore Shacobia Barbee — who earlier this week was named an honorable mention for The Associated Press’ All-SEC Team and this season led the Lady Bulldogs in points, rebounds and steals (an SEC-leading 2.7 per game) — said the team had to take care of its own business first.

“We need to focus on how we’re going to play,” Barbee said. “We know the game plan of how they’re going to play, but the most important thing for us is playing our best the entire game.”

ST. JOSEPH’S vs. GEORGIA

When/where: 5:30 p.m. today/Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT

TV/radio: ESPN/ The Ref 960-AM and 103.7-FM Gainesville

Records: St. Joseph’s is 22-9; Georgia is 20-11

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@JeffSchultzAJC @SethEmerson @BizWriterKristi Less than 3 weeks until basketball opener. Not that we are counting down.

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