The most important part of the basketball season has begun.
Inside Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia players lined the on-court bench with all eyes fixated on Sunday’s selection show to learn their path through the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. To the south, Georgia Tech did the same as it gathered inside its locker room.
The state’s major women’s basketball programs earned their spot in the premier postseason tournament. Each program recorded at least 20 wins on the season, including signature wins over N.C. State (Georgia) and Connecticut (Tech).
Georgia was pegged as a No. 6 seed in the tournament and is headed to Ames, Iowa. The Lady Bulldogs will face the winner of the No. 11 seed play-in game between Dayton and DePaul (Wednesday, 9 p.m.) on Friday. This season is the first featuring play-in games and a 68-team field on the women’s side.
Georgia Tech returns with the hopes of defending its Sweet 16 appearance from a season ago. The Yellow Jackets are headed to Palo Alto, Calif., as a No. 9 seed to face Kansas on Friday. Stanford leads the region as the No. 1 seed. Tech had been projected as highly as a No. 5 seed in recent weeks, according to ESPN’s Charlie Creme.
“We’re super excited and fortunate to be in the tournament,” Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. “It speaks to the tradition of Georgia women’s basketball. We’ve got another opportunity to compete, and we don’t take that for granted.
“Dayton and DePaul are two teams that are really, really good. They’ve got good coaches and play a good style of basketball. We’ll have our hands full either way, so we will get to work on both of them and try to be prepared for both teams.”
The Lady Bulldogs are in the Greensboro, N.C., regional, led by top-seeded South Carolina. Iowa State will host Georgia on its campus and sets up a potential second-round matchup with the No. 3 seed Cyclones.
Georgia finished the season with a 20-9 record, but sputtered toward the end of conference play and went into its postseason hiatus off an SEC Tournament second-round defeat to Alabama. The Lady Bulldogs, however, earned their NCAA tourney berth before the SEC slate began with the big win over the aforementioned Wolfpack and Notre Dame.
“This whole (break) fell at a really good time for us,” Taylor said. “We gave them some time off, then got back to work this week and focused on some things we needed to get better at. It gave us a chance to fine-tune things we are good at.”
Georgia has now appeared in 35 of 40 NCAA tournaments. That is tied for second best nationally. Tennessee is the only school to appear in every tournament.
The Lady Bulldogs are taking this new opportunity as a clean slate and pushing away the second half of the SEC season, which involved some struggles and losses to Alabama, Auburn and Florida. Georgia is led by two super seniors in Que Morrison and Jenna Staiti, in which it’s their last opportunity to suit up in a college uniform.
“The Alabama game left a bad taste in our mouths,” Staiti said. “You look back to December, and we weren’t really playing our best. We lost to Georgia Tech, and we had that week off and rebounded at N.C. State. That time off allowed us to get refreshed and put our mind to something other than basketball for a few days. For this team, that was important. Our team is in a really good mindset.”
Georgia Tech will appear in its 11th NCAA Tournament and the second under head coach Nell Fortner. Tech finished with a 21-10 record but lost six of its last nine contests. The Jackets had a strong run through the heat of ACC play, but their loss at N.C. State turned into a losing streak.
“We are at our best when there’s a challenge,” Tech senior guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen said. “We play to compete, and there are no bad teams in the NCAA Tournament. Whoever comes in our way, we can beat anybody if we focus and lock in the moment. It doesn’t matter who we play, but we have to play to our own standard.”
Fortner said she expected Tech to be within the 6-to-8 seed range, but she understood the committee’s decision based on the team’s late-season play. Tech is paired with the eight seed, anyway, so Fortner said the difference between the two isn’t significant.
“We’re all right with this,” Fortner said. “We feel good with where we are and the progress we’ve made over the past week. We’ll take it and go work hard.”
Tech returns to the tournament with the returning talents of Lorela Cubaj, Lahtinen and Nerea Hermosa. It did lose much of its guard depth, though, after Kierra Fletcher (also sidelined with a foot injury) and Loyal McQueen entered the transfer portal.
After shaky finishes to the season, a new one begins. Georgia and Tech have chances to prove themselves when it matters most.
“There’s a real excitement that comes along with being in the NCAA Tournament,” Fortner said. “This is something new and fresh. We’re all back at the starting point of a new season.”
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