Photo by Tricia Spaulding
ATHENS -- Even with Georgia ranked in the top 10, there were still lingering doubts about whether the Lady Bulldogs truly belonged among the nation's elite.
The skeptics got their answer Thursday night.
Pulling off one of its biggest victories in years, No. 8 Georgia won a down-and-dirty scrap with the school that all others in the Southeastern Conference measure themselves by. Porsha Phillips scored the go-ahead basket off a pass from Ashley Houts with 39 seconds remaining, then added two free throws that clinched a 53-50 upset of third-ranked Tennessee.
"The thing I'm most proud of is where our team has come from," said Houts, one of three Georgia starters who played the entire 40 minutes. "This year, we focused on the word change. We focused on getting prepared for where we need to be. We wanted to be a team that could compete with the best teams out there. I think we've shown the potential to do that."
Houts led the Lady Bulldogs (18-1, 5-1) with 12 points and Phillips had 10, but this bruising game was decided at the defensive end. Georgia shot just 36 percent from the field -- including a 3-of-19 start to the second half -- and was outrebounded 37-23.
The home team made up for its shortcomings when the Lady Volunteers (16-2, 4-1) had it. The Lady Dogs hustled back every time, swatted at the ball every chance they got and wound up forcing Tennessee into a staggering 23 turnovers.
"You're not going to get a selfish player to play defense," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "So the greatest compliment you can pay our team is this is a very, very unselfish group of kids. We don't put anybody on the floor who doesn't just play her tail off on the defensive end."
The Lady Dogs didn't put many players on the floor -- period. Houts, Jasmine James and Meredith Mitchell played the entire game. Angel Robinson was on the court for all but three minutes, while Phillips went to the bench for a mere four minutes. Only two other players even checked in for Georgia.
Aware of just how fatigued his players were, Landers screamed at the manager to make sure everyone had enough water for the final 18 seconds. Feisty to the end, Georgia never gave the Lady Vols a good look at a potentially tying 3-pointer, finally forcing Shekinna Stricklen to heave up a jumper from far beyond the arc. It never had a chance.
Asked how the manager reacted to his tongue-lashing, Landers quipped, "I think I hurt her feelings. I'll take her to IHOP later to make her feel better."
Alyssia Brewer converted a three-point play that put the Lady Vols ahead with 1:07 left, but Phillips scored the final four points to give Georgia a validating victory.
The Lady Dogs haven't made the Final Four since 1999 and last made it to a regional final in 2004. A year ago, they were knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"This is Georgia's tradition," Landers said. "This is why I hope these players chose to come here."
Georgia snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Lady Vols, posting its first victory in the series since the 2004 SEC tournament. The Lady Dogs had not beaten Tennessee in Athens in a decade -- a 78-51 victory on Jan. 17, 2000.
Glory Johnson scored 14 points for Tennessee, but the Lady Vols took a huge blow when Kelley Cain fouled out with 4:13 left. She picked up her fourth foul, complained about the call and drew a technical that sent her to the sideline for the rest of the night.
"I think the official misunderstood what came out of her mouth," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "But that was costly. She shouldn't have said anything."
Summitt was more disappointed by the play of her guards, Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund. They combined for just 14 points on 6-of-21 shooting, while committing 13 of the turnovers.
"That's guard play. Georgia's guard play was better than ours," the coach said. "It's hard to win when you've got two players playing pretty much by themselves and they're not making shots."
Georgia managed only seven points over the first 15 minutes of the second half, and Tennessee pulled away to a four-point lead that matched the biggest margin for either team.
Then, a stunning sequence sent the Lady Dogs into the lead. Houts swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key. At the other end, the senior guard knocked the ball away, broke out ahead of the pack and received a return pass from James for a layup that suddenly put Georgia ahead, 42-41.
After Cain put Tennessee back in front with a short hook off the baseline, the 6-foot-6 sophomore -- a native of nearby Atlanta -- let her temper get the best of her. She was whistled for a foul on Mitchell as the Georgia player drove the lane and mouthed off to an official, who tacked on the T.
Cane was done.
And a few minutes later, so was Tennessee.