"There's only one team in America that gets to open the season against the defending national champions. This year, we get that honor," head coach Andy Landers said. ³We love the big games. When you sign competitors and when you sign marquee players, they want to be in these types of games. As a basketball team, if you're competitive and you have aspirations, this is the type of game you want to play in. Quite honestly, we were excited six months ago when we knew we would be playing Baylor. And we¹re just as excited today."
Landers was most likely even more excited about his team¹s potential when the matchup was finalized. At that time, he expected to be putting a team on the floor that: 1) returned all five starters from a 24-10 Sweet 16 squad; 2) would be adding an Big Ten All-Freshman center from two years ago; 3) would have the services of a gritty sixth-year senior; and 4) would welcome one of the nation¹s top-10 recruiting classes.
But a great deal has transpired since then, primarily after the Lady Bulldogs returned to Athens for the Fall Semester.
During the second day of pre-season workouts Aug. 28 to be exact 6-3 power forward Rebecca Rowsey, one of only two players to start every game last season, tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee and was lost for the season.
Shortly after practices began, Landers learned that he had lost two more players for the year. Ebony Felder, who last summer received a sixth year to complete her eligibility, was forced to forego the season due to pain from chronic knee injuries. Reicina Russell, a Big Ten All-Freshman performer at Penn State in 2003-04 who sat out last season after transferring to Georgia, left the team for personal reasons.
The final blow came early in the Lady Dogs¹ exhibition opener against Augusta State on Nov. 1 when freshman Angel Robinson tore the ACL in her left knee just 114 seconds after checking into her first collegiate contest.
"It has been absolutely unbelievable," Landers said. "I feel like I have a cannonball-sized hole in my gut. A couple of months ago, when we had all the players we've lost with the rest of our players, I thought we might be as good as we've ever been. I thought we¹d be able to play a lot of different ways. We had size. We had size with quickness. We had shot-blocking ability. We had rebounding ability. We¹ve got great guards. All of a sudden, we¹re minus four, but the peculiar thing about losing four is that they¹re at the same position. We¹re really thin now at the power positions."
Landers likes what he's seen...most of it before sunrise
While Georgia was impressive during each of its exhibition wins, Andy Landers is perhaps more pleased with the Lady Bulldogs¹ performances in pre-season practices.
Due to academic schedules, Georgia has practiced from 6:00-8:00 a.m. this fall. The Lady Dogs¹ ability to focus and perform at that hour has caught the eye of their mentor.
"Anyone can play hard when they smell the popcorn in the building," Landers said following Georgia¹s 80-60 victory over the EA Sports All-Stars. ³Not everyone plays hard when you¹re doing it at the crack of dawn. If you do it then, you know you¹ll do it during games. I feel comfortable with the fact that playing hard is becoming habit for this team. I like the energy level of this team. So far, we¹ve played hard, we¹ve played together and we've played smart."
Taking on the champs
Facing the defending national champion is certainly nothing new to Georgia.
The Lady Dogs have taken on the defending AIAW or NCAA title winner more times than not, playing 20 games against 13 defending national champs during the last 25 years.
On two occasions, Georgia opened the season versus the previous year's premier team. In 1982, the Lady Dogs christened the campaign year with a 76-61 victory over Rutgers at the Crush Classic in Chicago. Georgia suffered a 99-70 setback to Connecticut to open the 2000-01 season, the Lady Dogs¹ last matchup against a defending national champ.
Georgia strong to open the year
The Lady Bulldogs have compiled an impressive 24-6 (.800) all-time record in season openers, including an even more stellar 22-4 (.846) under Andy Landers.
Georgia has begun the year with victories during each of the past four and eight of the last 10 campaigns. The Lady Bulldogs¹ last setback in their debut was the aforementioned loss to Connecticut during 2000-01.
The Lady Dogs are 7-1 in season openers on neutral floors.