Lady Dogs Claim SEC Crown; Dominate Post-Season Teams
With all five starters and the top two reserves returning from a 1995 Final Four unit, the expectations were expectedly high for last season's edition of Georgia's Lady Bulldogs. At the season's outset, perhaps they expected a little too much.
From a humbling 2-2 start came an early-December rededication, which was in turn followed by perhaps the most electrifying four months of basketball in the tradition-rich history of Georgia women's hoops.
The Lady Dogs would eventually earn their second consecutive Final Four berth before falling short of their ultimate goal - the National Championship.
Along the way, the Lady Bulldogs continuously accomplished a series of feats few thought possible.
A 19-game winning streak from December-February included victories over 10 teams that were ranked during the campaign. That stretch also spurred Georgia on its way to the school's fifth Southeastern Conference Championship. And senior guard Saudia Roundtree utilized the run to exploit her remarkable roundball prowess and establish herself as the nation's best player.
What stands out most, however, is the manner in which each of the aforementioned was almost exclusively achieved - on the road.
Of Georgia's 15 regular-season games against eventual NCAA Tournament teams, only three were played in Athens. The Lady Bulldogs were even forced to earn their trip to the Final Four by knocking off a gritty Stephen F. Austin squad on its home floor and before a sell-out crowd.
The path to the SEC Title included road wins at Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida and Ole Miss - teams which, barring their losses to Georgia, combined to post a 56-3 record a home.
On national television, Roundtree produced consecutive career high scoring outputs against two high-profile road opponents 27 points versus defending national champion Connecticut (ESPN) and 29 against No. 10 Penn State (CBS) - to produce a spotlight which would eventually follow her to National Player of the Year accolades.
Bouncing Back Strong From a Beginning to Forget
What by most accounts would be considered a dream season began as a total nightmare.
After an impressive 95-65 drubbing of Southern Methodist in the season opener, the Lady Bulldogs got their first wake-up call in the form of a 67-64 loss to Old Dominion. With Georgia holding a seemingly secure 62-57 lead with less than 3:00 remaining, the Monarchs finished with a 10-2 run.
An even more powerful dose of reality came a week later when No. 6 Virginia jumped on the Lady Bulldogs early and rolled to a 94-65 victory. No doubt, a return to the Final Four was the furthest thing from Andy Landers' mind.
The following week, he went back to the drawing board, literally, to illustrate the potentially disastrous long season ahead. Landers placed a poster-sized copy of the Georgia schedule on the wall of the Lady Dogs' meeting room and proceeded to rate his team's chances in each remaining contest.
At the conclusion of his review Landers asked, "What does that make us?" A dumbfounded Tracy Henderson responded for her teammates: "10-16, coach." While no one doubted it could happen; the team vowed it would not.
A week of spirited workouts followed and immediately came in handy against a pesky New Mexico State squad. The Roadrunners' upset bid was thwarted in the final moments when Rachel Powell canned her third three pointer of the second-half with 4:08 remaining to give Georgia the lead for good.
An off week for final exams proved to be another important tool toward the Lady Bulldogs of old finally hitting the court.
Georgia rolled to an easy 100-64 thumping of Bowling Green, never leading by less than 20 points from the 8:35 mark of the first half. More importantly, the contest featured the re-emergence of shooting guard Kedra Holland, who had been mired in a four-game shooting slump in which she was just 1-of-13 from three-point range. Holland exploded for 17 first-half points against the Falcons in just 10 minutes of action.
La'Keshia Frett tied her career high with 28 points in an 89-83 win at No. 18 Alabama and, in the process, surpassed the 1,000-point career scoring plateau. Frett's progression to the millennium mark tied the third-fastest pace in Lady Bulldog history.
Georgia then traveled to Myrtle Beach, S.C. for the Carolinas Holiday Beach Classic. An outmanned S.C. State team - decimated by injuries and dressing only six players - provided a warm-up for showdown with No. 11 Iowa in the semifinals.
The following day, Holland and freshman Pam Irwin shot the game versus the Hawkeyes wide open, connecting on all five of their first-half three-pointers as the Lady Bulldogs opened a 39-18 lead by intermission. Georgia cruised from there, while the rest of the nation took notice.
In the championship game against Nebraska, Roundtree cemented her status as the tourney's Most Valuable Player. The Anderson, S.C., native scored 10 of her 18 points in the first 4:49 of the second half to break open what had been a close game.
All that was wrong seemed to be cured as Georgia disbanded for a two-week holiday break, but even the most eternal optimist couldn't have been ready for what was ahead.
Magical January Run Puts Lady Dogs at Top of Polls
Georgia quickly moved to 2-0 in the SEC in its first 1996 appearance, a 76-61 win over previously unbeaten LSU. The victory proved costly, however, as forward Tiffany Walker, who returned to action for the first time since spraining her knee in practice on December 11, re-injured the same knee and, in essence, was lost for the season.
On January 8, Georgia established itself as the clear front-runner in the SEC by knocking off No. 4 Tennessee in Athens, 77-71. Irwin provided the key spark to an 8-0 run early in the second half, and Brandi Decker's three from the corner with 11:19 remaining put Georgia ahead for good.
The victory also provided Landers with his 400th win at Georgia. The 17-year mentor is the only full-time women's basketball coach in school history, almost single-handedly building the program into one of the nation's best.
"It's not my 400th. I haven't won a game," Landers said afterward. "I don't remember games; I remember people. We've been fortunate to win a lot of games, but most importantly, we have had a lot of good people who were also good basketball players."
The Lady Dogs then notched a 79-71 road win over No. 24 Auburn. Roundtree equaled the school free throw percentage record as she connected on all 10 of her attempts from the charity stripe to pace Georgia, which shot a sizzling 24-of-26 from the line.
Excited about a 3-0 start in the SEC, the Lady Bulldogs had transformed from a team fearful of failure just a month earlier to one with nothing to lose as they traveled to Storrs, Conn., on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to face third-ranked Connecticut, its sell-out crowd of 8,241 rabid fans and a national television audience on ESPN.
Georgia took control early and never trailed en route to a 75-67 victory.
Roundtree served as the catalyst, tying her career high with 27 points, while dishing out an equally important six assists. Holland was impressive as well, scoring 18 points and knocking down four treys. When the Huskies knotted the score at 65-65 with 2:06 left, Roundtree responded with a running jumper in the lane and on the next possession spotted Irwin, whose three-pointer from the right corner sealed the win.
In the process, the Lady Bulldogs ended Connecticut's nation-leading home win streak at 44 games.
For an encore, Georgia traveled to No. 10 Penn State and spoiled the Lady Lions' inaugural appearance in the Bryce Jordan Center in a 79-78 Lady Bulldog victory. A CBS audience and 12,093 PSU faithful watched as Roundtree bettered her career high scoring output with 29 points and equaled her career best with 10 rebounds.
Roundtree's career-high scoring mark fell for the third consecutive game in a 72-61 win over No. 20 Florida in Gainesville as she popped for 32.
The Lady Dogs' steady ascent in the national polls finally ended just as the team wanted - with nowhere higher to go. A 97-62 home win over Mississippi State on Super Bowl Sunday was followed by a No. 1 ranking in both national polls the following day.
It had been 12 years since Georgia occupied the top spot in the national rankings. Ironically, the Lady Dogs' next opponent, Texas, was the team that knocked them from that perch. A 14-0 run to start the game assured there would be no deja vu in Athens.
The Top Team in the Country Faces More Determined Opponents
Despite having the proverbial bulls-eye painted squarely on their jerseys, the Lady Bulldogs continued to respond.
With Roundtree saddled to the bench in foul trouble, Powell and Holland led Georgia in an 80-75 win over North Carolina on CBS. Powell canned three treys, but it took a steal and layup from Holland in the game's final minute to secure the outcome.
Returning to league action, the Lady Bulldogs traveled to Oxford to face No. 17 Ole Miss, which had already defeated Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home. Georgia looked primed to become another upset victim when, despite shooting a sterling 64.3 percent from the floor the first half, the Lady Dogs trailed 49-42 at the break.
Henderson and Frett combined to shoot 22-of-30 from the floor to turn the momentum in a 90-85 win. Georgia finished the game with a 62.3 field goal percentage, the team's best effort since 1988-89.
The Lady Dogs returned home for "Senior Day" and a crowd of 7,063 (the third-largest in school history) watched a 79-61 victory over South Carolina. All five Georgia starters scored in double figures while defensively, South Carolina's Shannon Johnson, the leading scorer in the SEC, was held scoreless in the first half.
An error-filled 75-55 win against Kentucky proved ominous prior to No. 13 Vanderbilt snapping the Lady Dogs' winning streak at 19 games, one shy of the school record, with a 71-66 setback in Nashville.
Foul trouble kept Henderson on the bench for all but 7:35 of the game's first 32 minutes, while Vandy's Sheri Sam served as a one-person wrecking crew with a career-high 32 points and 10 rebounds for the Commodores.
A balanced attack returned to help the Lady Bulldogs get well in victories over Florida (89-81) and Arkansas (87-54) to round out the regular-season slate as six regulars scored in double figures in one or both contests.
An athletic Louisiana State squad served as a crucial speed bump for the Lady Bulldogs in the opening round of the SEC Tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn. The eighth-seeded Tigers bumped top-seed Georgia, 73-71, in the first round.
Snubbed Lady Dogs Respond with Strong NCAA Tourney
The late-season losses proved more costly than anyone previously thought. On NCAA Tournament selection Sunday, the Lady Bulldogs watched the first three brackets be filled without them. Observers soon noticed that the draw also hadn't delivered No. 1-ranked Louisiana Tech. Despite being the only two teams to be ranked No. 1 during the season, Georgia and Louisiana Tech were pitted together in the Midwest Regional.
The most serious of preparations became even more so as what most believed to be the two most explosive teams in the nation began "March Madness" on a collision course for each other.
The Lady Bulldogs easily dispatched St. Francis (Pa.) and Oklahoma State in first- and second-round games in Athens.
The only thing separating Roundtree from a "triple-double" against the Red Flash was playing time. Her line score for the night: 9 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 27 minutes. A 12-0 run to end the first half sealed Oklahoma State's fate.
Georgia then traveled to Nacogdoches, Texas, for the Midwest Regional. The trip became even more dangerous when host Stephen F. Austin upset third-seeded Clemson in the second round. The Lady Bulldogs responded with a 78-64 victory that snapped the Lady Jacks' 17-game home winning streak and sent a sell-out crowd home unfulfilled.
Georgia and Louisiana Tech squared off in an epic battle in the Regional Final, a performance worthy of the hype and billing it received much of the season. The Lady Techsters surged to a 47-38 halftime lead before Roundtree simply took over, pouring in 26 second-half points as Georgia secured a 90-76 victory.
Roundtree was named the Regional's Most Outstanding Player, while Henderson joined her on the All-Regional team.
The Lady Dogs' second straight Final Four appearance proved more fruitful than the first, as Georgia cruised past Stanford in the semifinals, 86-76. Roundtree and Frett led four double-figure scorers, contributing 26 and 22 points to set up a rematch against Tennessee in the championship game.
Frett turned in a huge first half against the Lady Vols, scoring 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor. An 11-2 second-half run sparked the Lady Vols on their way to victory.