By Charles Odum
ATHENS, Ga. — The Southeastern Conference standings are proof that playing hard is not enough for the Georgia women this season.
The Lady Bulldogs displayed good hustle in fighting back from a first-half deficit of 15 points against No. 3 Tennessee Sunday, but in the end they could not overcome the turnovers and other mistakes that have devastated their once-promising season.
A last-second, five-foot shot from Kara Braxton bounced off the rim, leaving 22nd-ranked Georgia to bemoan its 28 turnovers in a 52-50 loss to the Lady Vols.
The loss before a Stegeman Coliseum crowd of 10,082 dropped Georgia (15-8 overall, 4-7 in the SEC) to ninth place in the conference and in danger of falling out of position for a NCAA tournament bid.
Tennessee (20-2 overall, 9-1 in the SEC) protected its lead in the conference, though not without some late drama. As Tennessee went 10 minutes without a field goal in the second half, Georgia pulled even at 44-44 for the first time in the half on a 3-pointer by
Mary Beth Lycett with 8:38 to play.
There were three more ties, the last at 50-50, before Tennessee guard Kara Lawson scored what proved to be the decisive basket on a mostly uncontested drive to the basket with 1:07 left to play.
"Nobody rotates over and helps,'' said Georgia coach Andy Landers. "That was the final nail.''
The big basket from Lawson was preceded by a turnover on a bad pass from Georgia's Christi Thomas. Tennessee was only 5 for 27 (18.5 percent) from the field in the second half, and a rebound by Thomas after the Lady Vols' last miss gave the Lady Bulldogs one final opportunity in the final seconds.
Thomas threw a long outlet pass to Braxton. The pass took a short hop in front of Braxton, slowing the freshman's momentum and giving Tennessee's April McDivitt an opportunity to position herself between Braxton and the basket.
Seeing Braxton catch the pass, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said her first thought was "I hope she walks.''
Braxton didn't walk, but the final buzzer sounded as the shot from Braxton fell off the rim.
"It just kept bobbling in the rim and popping out,'' Braxton said. "She took a good stab at it,'' said Thomas. "To play down to the wire is heart-breaking, it really is.''
Added Thomas: "We played well enough to win — almost. But almost doesn't count.''
After turning the ball over 26 times in each of its last two games, Georgia's inability to protect the ball again proved decisive. Georgia had five players finish with four turnovers. Some were caused by Tennessee's half-court press; others were unforced. In a span of 5:10 early in the second half, Georgia went scoreless while turning the ball over six times. On another possession in that span, Thomas missed a shot from two feet.
Summitt said Georgia "got the hustle plays; they outworked us on the boards.''
But Georgia's 46-30 advantage in rebounds couldn't make up for the game full of bad passes, dribbling mistakes, dropped passes and other miscues.
"We've played hard all year,'' Landers said. "Playing hard and with heart and playing smart are two different things. We don't play smart.''
The teams combined to make only 11 field goals in 50 attempts in the second half.
"I've been coaching 28 years, and this is one of the ugliest wins I've had,'' Summitt said.
Despite suffering a broken nose in practice Saturday and playing with a mask on her face, Lycett led Georgia with 14 points. Gwen Jackson of Eufaula and freshman Shyra Ely each scored 12 points for Tennessee.
Georgia now has a week off before playing host to Florida next Sunday.