The last time Georgia went into the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a first-round bye and the No. 3 seed, it lost the first game and hit the exit early — and that was just last year.
The No. 12 Georgia women’s basketball team wants to stick around the conference tournament a bit longer than in recent history to avoid the dreaded seed slide that could cost the Lady Bulldogs a favorable spot in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
“Seeding is still at stake right now,” Georgia guard Jasmine James said. “You can’t go into the SEC tournament like it doesn’t matter because we automatically know we’re going to go into the NCAA tournament. We still have to go in and play well. Seeding is very important. We’re a No. 2-, No. 3-, or No. 4-seed right now. We could be anywhere in there, so we need to go in and play well and do a good job to try to secure a good seed.”
No. 3-seeded Georgia (23-5) will play at 8:30 p.m. today at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 6-seeded LSU (19-10) and No. 11-seeded Auburn (16-13). The winner advances to play either No. 2-seeded Kentucky (25-4), No. 10-seeded Missouri (17-13) or No. 7-seeded Vanderbilt (19-10) in the semifinals at 6 p.m. on Saturday. The championship game will be at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
“We definitely have come up short, especially in the SEC tournament,” Georgia forward Anne Marie Armstrong said. “Especially last year when we lost that first game to South Carolina (59-55). I definitely think we can win the tournament. But we have to focus on one game at a time. We can’t look ahead because each opponent is going to be a big game because we all know how balanced the SEC is.”
Georgia’s recent form in the SEC tournament has not been especially sharp. Georgia has not won more than one game since 2007, last made the final in 2004 and the Lady Bulldogs’ last tournament title came in 2001. This will be the second straight year that Georgia will get a first-round bye. Just last year, the Lady Bulldogs were seeded No. 3 and lost to fifth-seeded South Carolina 59-55 in the quarterfinals.
“It plays a lot in our motivation to continue and not get beat in the first round,” Georgia forward Jasmine Hassell said. “We want to continue to focus on one game at a time. … But last year it was just one game, so we need to focus on just playing our hearts out and leave it all on the floor because you never know when it’s going to be your last game.”
The Southeastern Conference’s balance gives Georgia a chance to boost its seeding for the NCAA tournament by knocking off ranked opponents. The SEC has six teams ranked in the top 25 and Georgia has two wins against ranked teams so far this season — 42-40 against South Carolina and 75-71 at Kentucky.
“At this point in the season, you need to be winning games,” James said. “As we go into that tournament, you need to be winning games and progressing and showing improvement. You’re not going to be able to do that losing. We definitely need to get past that first game and get to that championship game and compete for that championship in order to secure a good seed for the NCAA Tournament.”
Although many of the faces on this year’s Georgia team are the same as last year’s, there are striking differences. Georgia has a senior-heavy group that has never played into the SEC tournament semifinals let alone for a conference title and that will begin its last postseason together. An influx of high-impact freshmen has given the team greater depth through the entire season, which has made a difference with the less wear and tear on the starters’ legs as the season draws to a close.
“We’ve played well at the end of the year before, going into this thing,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “But the piece that’s different this year is the mentality and the maturity of the team. This team has had a different focus throughout this season. That makes me believe that we have the ability to focus on a three-day tournament better than in the past.”