Georgia should feel right at home in NCAA Tournament

Credit: Kayla Renie/UGAAA

Credit: Kayla Renie/UGAAA

ATHENS — Georgia women’s basketball coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson will feel right at home when the Lady Bulldogs open NCAA Tournament play at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Iowa.

That just happens to be where “Coach Abe” is from. Abrahamson-Henderson’s basketball journey began as a high school All-American in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After signing with Georgia coach Andy Landers and playing two seasons for the Lady Bulldogs – and winning the SEC championship in 1986 – homesickness led her to return home.

She landed at Iowa, where she starred for legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer. Together they went 56-7 with the Hawkeyes and made two deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.

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“Obviously, we’re going back to where my family is, and that’s amazing,” Coach Abe said Monday. “The Iowa fans are amazing. They always have a great crowd and always do a great job there. There’s a lot of thoughts in my head. My high school coach will be there, and some people I know will come to the game and all that good stuff.

“But for this team, it didn’t matter where we were going. We feel blessed.”

It won’t be as nostalgic a trip as one might think. Coach Abe was there last season. Her last team at Central Florida played Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in December 2021. The Knights lost 69-61, which was one of four losses they had that season.

The good news is that Diamond Battles and Brittney Smith played there. Well, Battles did, anyway. Smith missed the game with COVID-19, which certainly contributed to the eight-point loss. But there will at least be some familiarity with the surroundings.

“It’s a good place for us to dive in,” Coach Abe said. “For me and my coaching staff and Brittney and Diamond, they’re familiar with it, the gym and everything.”

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What Georgia won’t be familiar with is its opponent. The 10th-seeded Lady Bulldogs (21-11, 9-7 SEC) drew Florida State (23-9, 12-6 ACC), a team that is disappointed to have been handed a No. 7 seed and having to go halfway across the country to play its opening game. Georgia hasn’t played FSU since 2011, when they met in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. Georgia won that game to improve to 8-0 in the all-time series.

The Seminoles are led by second-year coach Brooke Wyckoff, a former FSU star who had her number retired by her alma mater in 2006 and played seven seasons in the WNBA. Even Coach Abe has never faced FSU in her career. The schools never played during her six seasons at UCF.

“It’s going to be new territory for everybody,” Coach Abe said. “There’s not going to be different game plans because we played two or three times before like you have to do a lot of times. So, it’s a clean slate. We’ve just got to do us. We’ve got to go play Georgia basketball.”

The contest will feature contrasting styles of play. The Seminoles are known as a fast-break, run-and-gun team that averages 80.1 points per game. The Bulldogs are known as a lockdown defensive group, utilizing Coach Abe’s unique style of matchup man to frustrate opponents. Georgia leads the SEC in turnover margin at plus-3.78 and is fourth in points allowed (58.4 pg).

Georgia was rolling in February, winning five consecutive before losing to No. 1 South Carolina 73-63 in the regular-season finale in Columbia. After dominating Auburn in the second round of the SEC Tournament, Georgia was ousted by No. 3 LSU 83-66.

A 30-minute delay because of a leaky roof didn’t help the Bulldogs’ cause in Greenville. They had pushed the Tigers to the brink in an overtime loss in Baton Rouge on Feb. 2. But all that is ancient history now.

After succeeding Joni Taylor as Georgia’s coach in March, Coach Abe’s stated goal was to get her team to replicate past days of postseason glory. Georgia hasn’t advanced past the second round in NCAA Tournament play since 2013. The Lady Bulldogs were ousted in the second round last year by Iowa State, 67-44, in Ames, Iowa.

That’s not the Georgia standard. This year marks the 36th berth in 41 years for the Lady Bulldogs, who have played in 20 Sweet 16s, 11 Elite Eights and five Final Fours. Georgia is fifth all time in NCAA Tournament games played (92) and seventh in tournament victories (58). Coach Abe herself played in a pair of Sweet 16s with the Bulldogs.

Back in Iowa a year later with a native Iowan leading the way, the intention is to bring home two victories this time. To do that, the Bulldogs will have to get by the Seminoles and second-seeded Iowa (26-6) on its home floor.

“Everybody’s rested, really healthy,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “We’re ready to go.”

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