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NCAA WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT: Georgia, FSU ladies roll in tourney openers

Photo by Dave Martin

Photo by Dave Martin

AUBURN, Ala. -- Jasmine James and the Georgia Lady Bulldogs were too much for a Middle Tennessee State team bearing the memory of a lost teammate on their right shoulders.

James scored eight of her 18 points over the final 5:40 and Georgia ended the Blue Raiders' tragedy scarred season with a 56-41 victory Sunday night in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Porsha Phillips had 10 points and 14 rebounds for the sixth-seeded Lady Bulldogs (22-10), who are playing in their 17th consecutive tournament.

The 11th-seeded Blue Raiders (23-8) couldn't capitalize on a rare at-large berth, and wore the pain of a difficult final month in the same spot on their jerseys. The players had patches bearing the No. 20 of slain teammate Tina Stewart, who was stabbed to death on March 2.

"With everything that we have been through, it took a little bit more than pride for us to continue playing, because no one around the country has been through what we have been through," Middle Tennessee guard Kortni Jones said. "It was hard, but I think pride had a lot to do with us going along and playing in the Sun Belt tournament and luckily getting an at-large bid."

Stewart's freshman roommate is charged with first-degree murder in her death. The team came together to attend her funeral in Memphis, but couldn't pull out either game after her death.

"They're going to grow from it," Blue Raiders coach Rick Insell said. "That's what we talked about after the game. There are some great things ahead for this group. They're very young, they've got a passion for the game, and they're very willing."

Anne Marie Lanning led the remaining team of 11 freshmen and sophomores with 15 points, while star freshman Ebony Rowe scored 10.

Jasmine Hassell added 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting for Georgia, which advances to face Florida State on Tuesday night. The third-seeded Seminoles were a 76-46 winner over Samford.

James made six straight free throws down the stretch to help keep Middle Tennessee from threatening. She played against Stewart starting in the ninth-grade in Memphis and knows many of the Blue Raiders.

Georgia overcame 21 turnovers with a 48 percent shooting night, and limited Middle Tennessee to 28 percent from the floor. The Blue Raiders' previous season-low in points was 48 at Georgia Tech on Dec. 3.

"We played really, really hard on that (defensive) end," Lady Bulldogs coach Andy Landers said. "I just felt like our team was very committed to doing the things we worked on the last couple of days.

"I think they sensed that they were on the right page with what they were doing. All of a sudden, they weren't just doing the gameplan. They were making plays out of it."

Middle Tennessee, which has become a postseason regular, is now 1-12 against Georgia with the lone win coming in their last meeting four years ago.

The Blue Raiders cut a 19-point deficit down to 48-36 on KeKe Stewart's layup with 4:50 left. Georgia stopped that 9-2 run when James hit a long jumper to just beat the shot clock and end a nearly 4-minute field goal drought and Middle Tennessee's final rally.

The Blue Raiders failed to score in the opening 7:26 of the second half, missing their first nine shots and watching a six-point halftime deficit balloon.

Middle Tennessee's Rowe was scoreless for nearly 31 minutes but the Sun Belt freshman of the year finished strong. She still only had five rebounds, half her season average.

"With Ebony going scoreless in the first half, it put us in a bind," Jones said. "We are so used to her coming out and giving us as much as she can. I think that is why our offense struggled, because we are so used to her giving us points. But give credit to Georgia. They did a tremendous job of guarding her."

It took the Lady Bulldogs a while to build a comfortable margin despite the Blue Raiders' poor shooting.

Georgia scored 11 straight points before Lanning stopped the spurt with a 3-pointer with 1:28 left in the first half left to help Middle Tennessee close it to 26-20.

"We were just playing Georgia defense," Phillips said. "Very aggressive, very intense."

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FSU WOMEN SMASH SAMFORD, 76-46:

AUBURN, Ala. -- Samford wasn't used to seeing big, powerful players like Florida State's Cierra Bravard, and it showed.

The 6-foot-4 Bravard had 23 points and 13 rebounds and the Seminoles used brawn and smothering defense in rolling to a 76-46 win over Samford on Sunday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"I think we played a couple players on some teams that if you put them together would be her size," Bulldogs coach Mike Morris said of Bravard. "It's just hard to simulate that in practice."

And no easier to stop in games.

Florida State (24-7) used its superior size and strength to easily make it through the tournament opener for the seventh straight year after advancing to the regional final last season.

"(The guards) were really focused on the team," Seminoles coach Sue Semrau said. "They didn't really care who gets the ball. They knew what side their bread was buttered on."

Samford (25-8), the Southern Conference tournament champion, was also mostly denied its staple, the 3-pointer, in its first NCAA appearance.

"This does not take away anything we've accomplished this season," Morris said. "They're the best that Samford's ever had. And a lot of people got to see that this year."

Courtney Ward, a native of nearby Montgomery, scored 13 points and hit three 3-pointers in the first half for the third-seeded Seminoles. Chelsea Davis also had 13 points in 13 minutes off the bench. Freshman Natasha Howard grabbed 10 rebounds to help Florida State forge a 52-23 advantage on the boards.

Bravard was 9-of-14 shooting and helped put Samford post players Savannah Hill and J'Quita Babineaux in early foul trouble.

"My mindset was just kind of, 'Don't be denied,'" Bravard said.

Added Ward: "Cierra is one of the best post players in the NCAA, and you can't miss her. If she's open, of course you're going to pass her the ball and she can pass it back out if not. We just kept passing it in and out to get what we could get."

Emily London led Samford with 14 points, but was held in check most of the game by Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year Christian Hunnicutt. Hill, Samford's No. 2 scorer, finished 1-of-11 shooting for four points.

The 14th-seeded Bulldogs came in ranked in the top five nationally in 3-point percentage, but scarcely got any good looks and went 5 of 19 from behind the arc.

"I thought our players came out really focused and used our length," Semrau said.

London, whose 48 percent 3-point clip was second nationally, launched only one attempt in the first 35 minutes, and that came when Hunnicutt wasn't guarding her.

The Seminoles controlled the game throughout, especially on defense, against a team that had won 13 of its last 14.

"It's definitely been a season to remember," said an emotional London, the school's top career and single-season scorer.

Ward's off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer gave the Seminoles a 34-21 halftime lead. The Seminoles scored the first five points of the second half and didn't allow a field goal for nearly the opening five minutes

The Bulldogs hit just 5 of 25 shots in the first half and missed their first six in the second. They finished up shooting 26.9 percent and were forced into some awkward shots against Florida State's defenders.

"They were definitely a lot taller than we were," London said. "It was difficult getting the ball in there, and wherever you turned they would be there because their arms are so long. They did a really good job of getting us out of what we wanted to do."