Lady Dawgs Start SEC Tourney

ATHENS - For 30 years, Andy Landers has patrolled the sidelines for Georgia, but few seasons have tested his metal like this one.

For the Lady Dogs, it has been a wild ride that has included wins over some of the nation's best teams and a five-game losing streak that was the longest of Landers' career. While the team managed to earn Landers his 700th career victory earlier this year, it also has fallen short of securing a berth in the NCAA tournament.

And that puts Georgia in another situation that Landers isn't used to. His team will need to win a few games in this week's SEC women's basketball tournament if it hopes to earn a 15th straight invitation to the NCAA tournament.

"I think we're all aware of what might happen if we don't win, but I don't think it's something we can dwell on," said point guard Ashley Houts, one of two Georgia players selected to the All-SEC second team earlier this week. "We're focused on the next game, and if you win, you advance and if you don't, you don't."

Georgia last missed the NCAA tournament in 1994, but the Lady Dogs' 17-12 record has them squarely positioned on the bubble for a postseason berth this year. CollegeRPI.com has the Lady Dogs in the tournament according to its projections, but ESPN ranks them as the second team out after wrapping up their regular season with a stirring win over No. 17 Florida.

The road might not be quite so difficult for Georgia had it not dropped five straight games before winning its last two of the regular season, but its that strong finish that has Houts encouraged.

"It's a big deal for us as a team because we've been playing well together, playing hard and just trying to work on that swagger," she said. "That's what we need going into the tournament because having to put back-to-back games together in the SEC is not going to be an easy job."

Prior to knocking off Florida, Georgia went on the road to defeat Kentucky – just its fourth road win of the year. The Wildcats will be Georgia's opponent again in the first round of the SEC tournament, a must-win game for the Lady Dogs.

While Georgia handled Kentucky earlier this year, Landers said anything is possible this week, and this season's tournament is as wide open as any he can remember.

"From the top down into past the middle of the pack, it's a lot closer," Landers said. "There isn't a second team that I see. I'm more interested in seeing who's going to win it than I've ever been – or just seeing who's going to win games."

Auburn enters as the No. 1 seed, having finished the season with a 27-2 overall record and a 12-2 mark in SEC play. One of those two losses, however, came at the hands of Georgia, and the Lady Dogs will need to rekindle that same type of play if it hopes to make a run in the SEC tournament.

The Lady Dogs have not won two games in the conference tournament since 2004, but will almost certainly need to do so if they hope to secure an NCAA berth this year. An early loss would likely keep them out of the tournament for the first time since 1994 – a fact that Houts said adds a bit of motivation for this year's team.

"It's definitely motivation when you think about it, but I think our identity right now is not trying to make a statement and ride on other teams' coattails," Houts said. "We're trying to do something different for ourselves, and if we keep playing hard and do what we need to do as a team, then we hope we'll get there."

Should Georgia be able to knock off Kentucky, second-seeded Vanderbilt will be next up on the slate. The Lady Dogs defeated Vandy 65-55 in Athens in January, but lost by 16 on the road just two weeks ago.

While the task may be more daunting than in years past, Landers said his team isn't looking ahead. Tournament play rewards the teams that live in the moment, he said, and that's something he has had plenty of experience doing.

"The reality, as simple as it sounds, is the old cliché of win and advance and one at a time, it always fits. It is the time of the year that those things become more than old sayings. They're realities."


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