The second half of the regular season hasn’t been an easy jog for Georgia, but the Lady Bulldogs finished in their best shape since opening day and carry the momentum of back-to-back wins into the postseason.
Several of Georgia’s injured players have healed their wounds and the reinforced bench has made itself felt, fueling second-half blowouts of the last two regular-season opponents — 87-52 against Ole Miss and 62-46 against LSU.
“Having Krista (Donald) back and J.J (Jasmine James) back definitely helps,” Georgia forward Anne Marie Armstrong said. “That helps everybody know that we can be as aggressive as we want. But at the same time, we know we’ve got to be smart. We need a lot of our players out there who start most of the game. But just knowing that there’s players coming off of the bench, who are ready to play and that can be successful as well, is a key to our team.”
Georgia (22-7) finished third in the Southeastern Conference and clinched a first-round bye at the conference tournament, which began Thursday. The Lady Bulldogs will play the South Carolina (21-8)-Alabama (12-18) winner at 10 p.m. Friday at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
“Our defense is a lot better now,” Georgia guard Meredith Mitchell said. “That goes a lot with the consistency piece. We’ve been picking it up a lot and rolling with it throughout the whole game. Our effort has been great on defense. We’re the healthiest we’ve been all season right now. We can get people in and help the rotations, so we can relieve some players for a couple of minutes then get them back out there.”
Georgia played much of the second half of the conference season without James and Donald, who were out with knee injuries. That left the team with only a six-person rotation when it lost to Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee in late January.
“It feels good to finally get to practice together,” Georgia forward Jasmine Hassell said. “When we had everybody hurt, we couldn’t practice or play that much together. We couldn’t be as aggressive on defense because we couldn’t afford fouls and we’d missed a lot of practice days. But now, I feel like we’ve got everybody back and we’re on the verge.”
Georgia has won 5 of 6 since James, the starting point guard, returned. Donald, a backup forward, has been in and out of the lineup, but scored six points in six minutes against LSU on Sunday. When they were out, Georgia had to shorten practices and dial back its defense to conserve energy and fouls.
With the return of James and Donald, Georgia can return to its high-pressure defense of the early season.
“Our defense had kind of slipped a little bit in a couple of our games,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done a pretty good job the past couple of games. We’ve been getting after people and disrupting them and getting after them defensively.”
That difference has shown up most in the second halves against LSU and Ole Miss. Georgia held LSU to 9 of 23 (39.1 percent) field-goal shooting and forced 13 turnovers in the second half. The Lady Bulldogs were even more impressive against Ole Miss, allowing 5 of 23 (21.7 percent) shooting and forcing nine turnovers in the second half.
“It’s exciting to get the other team on the run,” James said. “It makes you want to do it more. It makes everything contagious. Once you see one person doing it, then you want to do it, too, and before you know it, we’ve got 20 or more steals and everybody’s getting breakout layups. It makes the intensity of the defense go up another level, too, because everybody at that point is pretty much tuned into what they’re doing. It’s really exciting and makes it a lot of fun.”