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Georgia guard Gabby Connally (2) dribbles the ball. The Georgia Bulldogs defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide in overtime 76-75 on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020 at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Ryan Cameron rcameron@randb.com)

The Georgia women's basketball team begins SEC Tournament play against Alabama at noon on Thursday, March 5, in Greenville, South Carolina. The Bulldogs (16-13, 7-9 SEC) are seeded No. 9 and the Crimson Tide (18-11, 8-8 SEC) are seeded No. 8.

The SEC Champion will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, where the teams will once again compete for a title. Georgia has’t won the SEC Tournament since 2001, but was given a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament in March of the 2017-18 season. Two years removed from their second round loss to Duke at the Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia will need several miracles to reach that platform again.

Previewing Alabama

The Bulldogs begin their journey with an even matchup. The Bulldogs defeated the Crimson Tide at home 76-75 in overtime on Feb. , adding to their late success. The Bulldogs won four of their last six games of the regular season, thanks to redshirt junior center Jenna Staiti’s efforts. In the last seven games of the regular season, Staiti averaged 20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds, and scored in double digits each of those games.

When the Bulldogs have done well, it’s largely been due to juniors like Staiti, Gabby Connally and Que Morrison. Morrison was voted on to the SEC All-Defensive team this season, and she scored in double figures in seven conference games this season. Connally has been crucial to the Bulldogs as the primary ball handler, and she has been clutch in tight games. Her two free throws in overtime are what gave Georgia a one-point lead over Alabama in the first matchup.

Four of the Bulldog’s last five matches with Alabama went to overtime, but they managed to win every time in the extra period. At the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Georgia hopes to improve its record of 6-2 all time over Alabama at neutral locations.

Noteworthy hardships

Morrison underwent a successful surgery on Feb. 25 to repair a torn labrum in her right shoulder. Morrison entered the locker room in the first half of the loss against Texas A&M and returned to the bench in the second half with a sling around her arm. She will not return for the SEC Tournament. Gabby Connally also left early in a loss against Mississippi State, and returned two games later to help her team defeat Florida. Connally’s presence was missed against Missouri, as her 50 game starting streak snapped, and Missouri had a 4th quarter surge to win the game.

“We’ve had a rocky season in terms of injuries and youth, and we are growing up and maturing at the right time,” head coach Joni Taylor said following the 65-59 senior night win over Florida this past Sunday.

Two Bulldogs seniors were honored in the final regular season game, Stephanie Paul and Ari Henderson. Paul has been a starter all this year, along with juniors Connally, Morrison, Staiti and Maya Caldwell. Freshman Chloe Chapman was asked to fill in Connally’s shoes when injured, and started in every game since Morrison’s injury except for senior night. Given additional play time, Chapman still only averaged two points in those three games, marginally better than her 1.5 points per game season average.

What Georgia needs to do to win

“We jumped out and were able to take control of the game early,” head coach Joni Taylor said after the 73-56 win over LSU. “It was huge for us to get off to a good start and to get out in transition and score.”

Georgia will need to do more than get a hot start if they hope to make it past Alabama in the tournament. Last time Georgia faced the Crimson Tide, the Bulldogs led 41-25 at halftime. The Bulldogs outscored all opponents this season by 43 points in first halves, but were outscored by 11 in second halves. Georgia was able to survive Alabama’s late game push, but the Bulldogs cannot say the same about the losses to Missouri, Mississippi State, among others.

Georgia will need four full quarters of play to win, and they can not get tired on the defensive end. Georgia’s best defensive showing came on Jan. 23 when they traveled to Arkansas. Following a 100 point outing against Vanderbilt, Georgia limited Arkansas to 55 points, 31 points below its season average. Georgia managed a 19-2 run in the second half and earned its lone win over a top-25 ranked opponent this season.

The Bulldogs must play a complete game if they hope to defeat Alabama, and especially if they hope to make it past South Carolina. The No. 1 seeded Gamecocks won four of the last five SEC women’s basketball tournaments, falling short last season early to No. 10 Arkansas. The reigning champions are the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who are seeded No. 2 in this season’s SEC Tournament.

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