For the Georgia women‚Äôs basketball team, this summer represents a good-news/better-news scenario.
First, the good news. The Lady Bulldogs, who finished the 2013-14 season with a 20-12 mark and their 20th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, will have 10 practice sessions this summer, a luxury not afforded to most college basketball teams.
Now, the better news. Georgia will utilize those practices in order to prepare for a 10-day, three-game exhibition tour in Italy.
After arriving in Rome on Aug. 4, the Lady Bulldogs will face ‚ÄúAll-Star Italy‚Äù on Aug. 7 at Ponte Buggianese, then will oppose ASD Societa Ginnastica in Treste on Aug. 9 and will close out their tour on Aug. 11 with a game against a Turkish National team in Bormio before returning home on Aug. 13.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs awesome ‚Äì a great way to start out my senior year and our season,‚Äù senior guard Erika Ford said Wednesday. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs going to be an unbelievable experience.‚Äù
Georgia coach Andy Landers, now in his 36th year in Athens, said the trip has been in the works for nearly two years and added that the Lady Bulldogs are one of the few high-profile college teams that have never had an overseas tour. And with five new faces on the travel roster ‚Äì including four freshmen ‚Äî he hopes his team will take advantage of experiences they‚Äôll be afforded.
‚ÄúThe carryover is you hope you max out the opportunity for your players to get to know each other, that bonding piece,‚Äù Landers said. ‚ÄúThere aren‚Äôt many times when a team is together 24 hours a day for 10 days. The most recent situation we had was in the NCAA tournament in the Elite Eight (in 2013) when we went out to Spokane and stayed there.
‚ÄúOur team got close and it wasn‚Äôt surprising we played as well as we did as it was truly all for one and one for all. We had one heartbeat there. You hope to get some of that and that it carries over.‚Äù
Freshman Mackenzie Engram appears delighted to be able to undergo this birth under fire and understands that establishing and developing camaraderie will be paramount on the trip.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs very important that we learn how to play together earlier,‚Äù Engram, a 6-foot-2 forward from Hillgrove High School, said. ‚ÄúIt will really help us when it comes to the (regular) season because we‚Äôll already have the experience of playing in real live games together, connecting and developing that chemistry.‚Äù
Unlike a regular season or Southeastern Conference game where the Georgia has extensive scouting reports and film sessions on its opponent, the Lady Bulldogs will be going into their Italy games without knowing much of anything about their foes, which fosters both excitement and anxiety.
‚ÄúJust having those extra practices is something we‚Äôre not really used to, but I think we‚Äôre taking advantage of it,‚Äù junior forward Merritt Hempe said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not completely preparing for who we‚Äôre going to play, but it will give us a way to play as we‚Äôre going along. That should be beneficial for us.‚Äù
Landers said that because of the timing involved, his team won‚Äôt employ any man-to-man schemes and have prepared only a few offensive sets, so he‚Äôs looking forward to observing how the Bulldogs adapt in the heat of battle.
‚ÄúNormally, you at least believe you know what the other team is going to do in this or that situation,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúSo once the game starts, it‚Äôs more about how you execute based on how you prepared. With this, you‚Äôre going to have to pay attention once that ball goes up‚Ä¶It will be interesting for players, too, because they‚Äôll walk out there believing the only thing we have going for us is what we practiced these 10 days. So we better play the heck out of that zone and execute those three sets.‚Äù
Sandwiched between the three games will be visits to Florence, Pisa, Vernoa and Sondrio. None of the Lady Bulldogs have traveled extensively, and Landers, who said he‚Äôs been to Amsterdam, France and Portugal on recruiting trips, assents he‚Äôs not a ‚Äúbig world traveler.‚Äù But the team has prepared for the non-basketball portion of the sojourn by doing research on different facets of the country and making pre-practice presentations.
‚ÄúWhat I sense is that it‚Äôs only become relevant in the last month or so,‚Äù Landers said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs always been one of those things that was out there in the future‚Ä¶ So the last month or so, anything that gets mentioned relating to this trip, they‚Äôre listening. I can see the interest and the anticipation growing on a day-by-day basis. It‚Äôs been neat to watch and see that. I think every single one of them is excited and is very appreciative that this is the chance of a lifetime.‚Äù