Georgia led the 11th-ranked team in the country through three quarters on its home court. There was a unique blend of anxiety and excitement on the Lady Bulldogs’ bench, because the players and the other 3,461 people in Stegeman Coliseum knew the magnitude of beating Kentucky — especially given Georgia’s position.
Seconds later, one of the team’s biggest flaws reappeared. Kentucky opened the final period on a 9-0 run and there was the insufficiency: making a statement to finish off a victory. Down five, Georgia hadn’t trailed a moment prior and suddenly found itself in an uncomfortable spot.
“It’s the same story over and over again,” point guard Gabby Connally said.
That led to a final few minutes of regulation that were filled with back-and-forth excitement and a cold night of shooting quickly turned into fiery-hot performances from behind the 3-point line. (Side note: there was an actual fire after the game that led to an evacuation, with no damages or injuries) Georgia looked like it would ride an offensive surge and overcome a brief deficit by way of 3-pointers on consecutive possessions by Connally and one from Taja Cole to follow.
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But then the mistake that serves as a symbol for Georgia’s entire season occurred. Fifteen seconds after Cole’s make, Kentucky guard Jaida Roper hit a 3-pointer from the corner and it was directly in front of the Wildcats’ bench. More added drama to the dagger.
That would be all Kentucky (24-6, 11-5 SEC) needed to escape with a 58-53 win over Georgia (18-11, 9-7 SEC). Georgia dropped its fifth contest to Kentucky in six tries, and more importantly missed its chance to boost its Rating Percentage Index (RPI) from 98. Kentucky entered Sunday’s contest at 21, so a win would’ve been monumental for the Lady Bulldogs’ aspirations to return to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s tough to end that the way we did,” Cole said. “That’s a really good team. We’re a really good team too, and it hurts to come this close and not get it.”
Georgia had some second-half foul calls against it, and many of them drew the ire of the coaching staff. Head coach Joni Taylor, who was back on the bench Sunday after giving birth to her second daughter, was boldly speaking with referees after no-calls on consecutive possessions. Taylor looked back in her coaching element and told The Telegraph she will return to her full-time role for the SEC Tournament. Nevertheless, that wasn’t the lone reason for Georgia’s defeat. It was a 36-percent shooting mark and 21 turnovers.
So close, but not there yet. Consequently, Georgia heads to Greenville, South Carolina, for the SEC Tournament as a No. 7 seed. That’s a far cry from the No. 3 seed it was a season ago (with not much to worry about as its place in the NCAA tournament was already cemented).
Georgia will begin its run toward a conference title with Arkansas, who the Lady Bulldogs will face for the third time this season. It marks only the second time Georgia has been seeded seventh in the SEC tournament, and it went 1-1 in its previous encounter (2009).
What bodes well for Georgia entering postseason play
1. Swagger remains: There was interesting ambiance in the postgame interview room (before evacuation was forced, of course). Georgia players were disappointed to lose a game that could’ve had substantial benefits, logical given that the Lady Bulldogs had won five-of-six games entering Sunday’s play.
Connally said Georgia “played our heart out,” and knows which areas it must improve. Georgia’s wins during its streak have come over the bottom-half of the league, but the opportunity to make a run has arrived. The Lady Bulldogs are choosing to ride on its success rather than focus on the last loss.
“We have done really well all year long with bouncing back, and this team is very resilient,” said interim head coach Karen Lange, who took pride in Sunday’s performance and said she expects Georgia to play with a “fire”: “There’s still a lot to play for next week and we’re putting that Georgia jersey on. We have to get as far as we can in the tournament and see what happens.”
2. Familiarity with Arkansas (well, maybe): Ah, Georgia and Arkansas know each other all-too-well. They’ve played twice this season in a couple of track meet-type contests that have involved plenty of scoring. That could be to Georgia’s advantage as it has plenty of scouting on the Razorbacks, but Arkansas knows plenty about its opponent, too.
The third time may be a charm as the cliche goes, or a curse. Arkansas enters the tournament losing eight-of-nine games, but Chelsea Dungee (19.6 points per game) and Malica Monk (13.1) serve as instant offensive threats. Georgia’s last SEC tournament bout with Arkansas came in 2001. Georgia won 63-44 and won the conference title that season.
3. Opposite of Mississippi State: Georgia lucked out in one regard: it doesn’t have to go through Mississippi State to reach the tournament finals. Mississippi State has been dominant across the conference this season led by Teaira McCowan, and are heavy title favorites. Georgia’s path to the finals could still be formidable, but could include No. 2 seed South Carolina and No. 3 seed Texas A&M instead.