Lady Dawgs Hope to Continue Run

ATHENS -- Heading into the season, there was no reason to think that Georgia's two matchups against run-of-the-mill Ole Miss would have much significance.

Looking back, though, the Lady Bulldogs' run to their 14th NCAA Sweet 16 can be traced to those two mid-winter games. The first was a 90-79 loss in Oxford that was Georgia's third straight and finally snapped the Lady Bulldogs out of a slumber.

" I definitely think that skid gave us a lot of character and helped us out a lot," senior Christi Thomas said. "I think we've made major steps since that game."

Georgia won three straight after that, but then dropped two in a row. That's when the second matchup with the Lady Rebels came along. The day of that game, Georgia coach Andy Landers announced that his leading scorer and rebounder, junior Kara Braxton, was dismissed from the team.

The 6-foot-6 Braxton entered Georgia with All-America potential but never could stay in the lineup long due to suspensions and a health issue. Last year, she was suspended for the final eight games of the season.

"It continues from last year," Thomas said. "We were happy to have her back, but it's just one of those things. Since you've done it before, you know you can do it again."

The Lady Bulldogs are 8-2 since Braxton's dismissal. Last year, they advanced to the Sweet 16 and fell 63-61 to top-seeded Duke without Braxton. This year they hope to get at least one step further, and they get that chance tonight against second-seeded Purdue in Seattle.

Third-seeded Georgia (24-9) and the Boilermakers (29-3), who finished the season ranked No. 3 in the nation, meet at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Time in the Bank of America Arena for the right to advance to the West Regional final.

"I'm proud of (my team) because they've developed and improved in the last couple of months into a Sweet 16-caliber team," Landers said. "While we knew we had some potential two months ago, I wasn't exactly sure whether or not we would realize it."

The difference, according to Landers and the players, has been focus. None of them have said publicly that Braxton was a distraction, but it's clear her on-again, off-again relationship with the lineup kept Georgia from finding any sort of rhythm.

"We've just kept playing," Landers said. "In this sport, there aren't very many teams that are fortunate enough to go through a season without losing someone through injury or otherwise. It happens. It's part of it. I think the big thing is we've stayed focused and kept working toward our goals."

There has also been a more tangible change in Braxton's absence as the Lady Bulldogs have put more responsibility in the hands of their guards. The balanced approach is beginning to pay dividends. Georgia scored 78 points against Liberty and 85 against TCU in the first two rounds of the tournament.

The Lady Bulldogs also have thrived on a bunker mentality they've adopted since Braxton left. Her absence leaves them with a team that is only seven deep.

"We know this is all we have," junior Jessica Pierce said. "We just have to rely on each other. That's what we've been doing." And it's working.

"I think this is the best basketball we've played," Thomas said, "but I think this team could even get better from here."

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