DULUTH | The Georgia Lady Bulldogs found the cure for what ailed them the first time they faced Vanderbilt in early January.
Ninth-seeded Georgia turned in a superior defensive performance, limited its turnovers and worked around having several starters in foul trouble Thursday to beat eighth seed Vanderbilt 53-43 at the Southeastern Conference women’s tournament at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Lady Bulldogs, who led Vanderbilt for the last 27 minutes of the game, advance to a high noon showdown Friday with top-seeded South Carolina (26-3).
In a 66-58 loss to Vanderbilt on Jan. 2 in Nashville, Georgia was guilty of 24 turnovers (which the Commodores converted into 23 points) and gave up 24 points to senior guard Jasmine Lister. On Thursday, the Lady Bulldogs played smarter (if not harder), committing but 15 turnovers and limiting Lister to only six points, all of which came in the second half.
“We felt like our players answered the challenge,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said.
“We played well as a team as a team and we played well defensively,” senior point guard Khaalidah Miller, who finished with a team-high 12 points, added. “Even when we didn’t do as well as we wanted to offensively, we stayed the course and guarded them on our end, which is the best I’ve seen us play defensively all year. We did a good job taking them out of their (game).”
Georgia (20-10) started the game sluggishly as Christina Foggie hit two early 3-pointers to put Vanderbilt (18-12) up 6-0, but the Lady Bulldogs kicked it into high gear at the 7:30 mark when Meritt Hempe scored on a layin to make the score 13-12 in Georgia’s favor.
The Lady Bulldogs then went on a 13-3 run to end the first half with a 28-15 edge. The run was highlighted by the post play of Krista Donald, who took over with three consecutive field goals to put Georgia up 24-13. Donald finished the day with 10 points and eight rebounds.
“I just went out and played hard, which is what I try to do every game,” Donald, a forward who spent a good bit of time in the post Thursday, said. “I just let it come to me. If I do good, that’s what I’m hoping, but sometimes the game’s not always perfect, so you just have to go out and play.”
After Hempe connected on two free throws in the opening seconds of the second half, Georgia sputtered momentarily as the Commodores went on a 9-2 run to pull with eight points at 32-24, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Erika Ford and Miller and a subsequent jumper and 3-pointer by Ford put Georgia up 43-26 with 13:20 remaining.
“As the game got played, after about 10 minutes, all five of our kids were on the same page,” Landers, whose team led by a minimum of 10 points through the second half, said. “We were playing close to exactly the way we wanted and hoped we could play defensively and affect the things Vanderbilt was trying to do offensively.”
The Commodores were guilty of 19 turnovers and Georgia made them pay a bit more with seven steals, led by three from Shacobia Barbee, who leads the SEC in the theft category. In addition, Georgia did not get rattled in the face of Vanderbilt’s many defensive schemes, deftly handling the Commodores’ attempts to apply pressure.
“They put the pressure on us coming up and down the court, but we held our composure as a team and did a lot better with the ball this time when they were pressuring us,” Miller said. “People were getting open and getting in the gaps like we practiced and we weren’t doing that the first time we played them. We executed really well against them in the press.”
When asked the difference in Georgia between their January contest and Thursday’s game, Commodores’ coach Melanie Balcomb — whose team has now lost four consecutive games and nine of its last 11 — said, “Mentality. We’ve been on a stretch where we haven’t finished games and we’ve gotten behind. I don’t think our mentality was where it needed to be. They’ve gotten more aggressive, more physical (and) were able to take us out of things that we were able to do against them offensively.”
The Lady Bulldogs now face the unenviable task to squaring off against the Gamecocks, who came into the tournament ranked No. 4 in country and before ending the season with a loss at Tennessee had won 10 in a row. The Gamecocks defeated Georgia 67-57 on Feb. 27 in Columbia.
“We’ll be excited about it. I know I am,” Landers said. “The game at South Carolina started with a South Carolina run that put us on our heels and it lasted about five or six minutes. After that, the game was a game. Can we repeat and improve on our last performance? I certainly think so. I look forward to playing them again and I think our players will look forward to it.”
NOTES: With Thursday’s victory, Landers posted his 29th 20-win season in 35 years at Georgia. … Vanderbilt’s 43 points was the lowest total the Lady Bulldogs have allowed since beating Kennesaw State 91-32 in December. … Georgia got 10 points from Ford and six from Hempe; Christina Foggie tallied 19 for South Carolina, followed by Kylee Smith’s 10 points. … Georgia outrebounded Vanderbilt 35-28 and recorded 13 second-chance points.